The 2016 Music and Myth Awards

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It’s almost the end of January, which means it’s time for the fourth annual Music and Myth Awards, wherein I nominate The Music and Myth’s favorite vocal and instrumental records of the preceding year. The concept is simple: a music lover’s honest, subjective and – given that I listen to countless hours of new music per week, dare I say – informed opinion.

The tradition started with my displeasure over the fact that NARAS failed to nominate Patricia Barber’s outstanding Smash for best vocal record of 2013 and has since evolved into a sort of anti-Grammy round-up article. I usually start by taking a quick look at the Grammy nominees in the best vocal and instrumental jazz record categories and trying to predict the eventual winner, before revealing my own winners and attempting to justify my picks.

So, let’s take a look at the Gammy line-up for this year. As always, there’s cover-records galore and the usual NARAS-approved crowd, consisting of musicians who seem to hold season tickets to the nominations. I feel like I have to repeat this every year: this is not a knock on these musicians or their beautiful records, rather on NARAS and their restrictive view of the music industry. I don’t think there’s a single musician or band that hasn’t been nominated – probably multiple times – over the last few years. Given the wealth of talent in this particular genre, I find it hard to believe that every year the “very best” music is produced by a sample of about two-dozen musicians. Anyway, it is what it is, so let’s move on to the round-up.

In the Best Instrumental category we find last year’s winner, John Scofield, with his record of quirky and sometimes outright funny reworkings of country music classics. In the cleverly titled Country for Old Men, Scofield covers everyone from Hank Williams to freakin’ Shania Twain and does so with impeccable technique and finesse. It’s a thoroughly entertaining effort, but ultimately one that doesn’t develop beyond the limitations of its concept.

Meanwhile, Peter Erskine’s not-so-cleverly titled Dr. Um, with its tribute to Weather Report-type fusion certainly adds some color to this ballot of straightforward and straight-faced piano-driven records, but it’s also the only one of the five that makes me wonder what it’s doing in a supposed selection of the best in the world.

There’s a lot of piano on this year’s ballot, with three marvelous and diversified exhibitions of the instrument’s evocative power. Book of Intuition by Kenny Barron is captivating, dynamic and splendidly crafted while Sunday Night At The Vanguard by Fred Hersch is pensive and subtle, making knowledgeable use of space and atmosphere. My personal favorite, however, is Nearness by longtime collaborators Joshua Redman (on saxophone) and Brad Mehldau. There is something refreshingly raw and unpredictable in its sound and the duo’s impressive chemistry makes for a fascinating dialogue. My head says they should win, but my instinct tells me the award will go to Hersch. So far, I’ve been one-for-one every year, so let’s see if I get it 50% right again this time around.

On the vocal side we’ve got Catherine Russell’s old-school and upbeat Harlem on my Mind that finds the singer at the top of her game, while perennial nominee Tierney Sutton puts forth The Sting Variations, a charming collection of songs from the English musician’s repertoire that ultimately suffers from the same drawback as Scofield’s cover album, namely the failure to outgrow its gimmick.

The Branford Marsalis Quartet teams up with Kurt Elling to offer the stylistically exquisite Upward Spiral. Of course, Marsalis and band are top-notch while Elling has perhaps the most educated voice in the business, so this alone makes for a record that aims for musical perfection. While the record exceeds in everything it seems to attempt, it’s exactly this focus on technical faultlessness rather than clever storytelling that I think hinders it from being a truly memorable work.

As opposed to other years, however, there are two thoroughly unforgettable records in the vocal category, and I’ll take a bit of a closer look at both of them.

Let’s start off with Gregory Porter’s Take Me To The Alley, which I’ve already written about this summer. Now, Porter is the kind of musician who’s reached a stage in his career where everything he touches turns to musical gold. He has a unique voice, a singular style and songs that have mainstream appeal, pushing him more and more into the pop landscape. If you don’t believe me, here’s Gregory singing “Purple Rain” with German pop icon, all-around entertainer and modern-day Spice Girl, Helene Fischer. Something tells me we won’t be seeing a Catherine Russell/ Helene Fischer duet anytime soon.

Like Liquid Spirit before it, Take Me to The Alley is absolutely gorgeous start to finish, its simple tunes made memorable by Porter’s warmth, sincerity and almost supernatural talent for creating memorable melodies. This is the kind of record you can play for someone who hasn’t heard a single note of jazz in their entire life and be comfortable in your certainty that you’ve just converted them (then, when you’ve got them securely hooked, you hit them with the Zorn catalog).

Here is what I wrote about it in my review:

Perhaps [Porter’s] greatest talent is his ability to keep doing the same thing while thoroughly avoiding to fall into the trap of repetition. With Take me to the Alley, Gregory Porter’s chosen creative path is clearly marked. Even if he doesn’t stray from it for the rest of his career, I for one am happy to follow.

Normally, I would have predicted that NARAS hands him the award just based on the album’s potential mainstream appeal but they already gave him a Grammy for essentially the same record only a couple of years ago.

In my opinion, a more deserving winner would be René Marie for the outstanding Sound of Red. In her first record of fully original material, the intelligent and charismatic vocalist sings her heart out in an impressive collection of powerful and memorable compositions, a veritable tour de force in storytelling and emotion.

I absolutely fell in love with this record from the first note and had a hard time deciding between it and my eventual pick for Best Vocal. It matches Take Me to the Alley in candidness and warmth, but clearly surpasses it in scope, due to Marie’s impressive emotional range. While Porter’s delivery can often fall into a formula, albeit a very pleasant one, Marie seems to adjust her articulation to match the essence of every song. It’s a stunning feat of characterization. I usually ridicule NARAS at every turn and trust neither their expertise nor their commitment to music, but I sincerely hope they make the right choice this time and hand the award to René Marie.

And now, on to the second part of the article for the actual Music and Myth Awards for 2016.

Best Vocal Record: Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution

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As I’ve mentioned above, I had a very difficult time choosing between The Sound of Red and Emily’s D+Evolution. Both are stunning, fearless, challenging works of exceptional beauty and intelligence and both carry the pronounced signature of their respective creators. While I instantly fell in love with The Sound of Red, it took me a while to warm up to Esperanza’s new endeavor. Her bold and unpredictable creative direction is a big departure from what the audience has come to expect based on her previous outings, but that is exactly what makes it so memorable. Once I played it a couple more times and got used to the structure, the record almost violently seized my attention, demanding to be experienced and respected. Esperanza’s study of the Emily persona is gripping in the most intimate way, the songs are enduring and remarkable for their ingenuous complexity. Here’s what I wrote about it in my review:

After a four-year break, Esperanza put forth her most ambitious work yet. Emily’s D+Evolution is essentially a concept record, a collection of compositions that perfectly reflects the vision and boundless energy of an artist at the peak of her creative force. It’s a record that bridges so-called genres, joyfully experimenting with the possibilities of the composer’s talent and managing the rare feat of sounding at the same time enlightened and naïve in its lyricism.

In the end, I chose this record first and foremost because it sounds like nothing you’ve heard before. Sure, the influences are there and they are undisguised, but the result feels fresh and exciting. In this profound yet playful record, Esperanza has not only found her own voice, it feels like she has invented her own language too. Absolutely breathtaking!

Best Instrumental Record: Tyshaw Sorey – The Inner Spectrum of Variables

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If the pick for best vocal record was difficult, this one could not have been easier. From the first time I heard it in August of last year, I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that this would be the Music and Myth’s best instrumental record for 2016. I kept waiting to see if I would stumble across a work that might equal or even surpass it. Not even close!

Tyshawn Sorey’s monumental composition for double trio (piano jazz and classical string) is a universe of its own, similar in scope to last year’s winner, The Epic by Kamasi Washington, but completely different in almost every other aspect. Its blend of jazz and classical, of composition and improvisation, technique and imagination makes it as much a work of science as it is a work of art. Here’s what I wrote about it in my review:

Of course, the beauty of Sorey’s Variables is that, as the name suggests, the symbolism can take whichever shape the listener’s mind can conjure up. This allows the audience to participate in the work on an almost creative level, in a way achieved only by the topmost expressions of art. In this author’s opinion, the very best examples of literature leave enough room for the reader to fill with the contents of his or her imagination. Tyshawn Sorey’s compositions demonstrate that this effect can be achieved in music also.

[…] The Inner Spectrum of variables is a visionary work, masterfully imagined by a composer whose genius extends even beyond the brilliance exhibited by many of his distinguished peers and flawlessly executed by a band whose virtuosity is uncontested.

That’s a wrap for this year’s Music and Myth Awards. What did you think of the records? Have you already heard them? Are you planning to check them out in the future? Who do you think will wake away with a Grammy and what are your choices for best vocal and instrumental record of 2016? Sound off in the comment section!

Tyshawn Sorey’s The Inner Spectrum of Variables – equal parts science and art

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A couple of weeks ago, while browsing through the new releases, a particular record caught my eye. Two things stood out immediately.

First, the artist’s name. Tyshawn Sorey is one of the most respected, all-encompassing musical minds of the modern era. His compositions invariably place his work at the upper echelon of jazz, modern classical and the avant-garde.

The second thing that had my attention was the album’s lineup: a Double Trio consisting of a typical piano-jazz set-up (featuring Sorey on drums and percussion, Cory Smythe on piano and Christopher Tordini on bass) as well as a classic string trio formed of Fung Chern Hwei on violin, Kyle Armburst on viola and Rubin Kodheli playing the violoncello.

Now, whenever I see a string trio on anything even remotely resembling a jazz record I go completely nuts. Seeing as this was also signed Tyshawn Sorey, I went into it with high expectations. In fact, my expectations were so high I even anticipated they would be surpassed, meaning this record has the distinct quality of simultaneously meeting and surpassing my expectations. All kidding aside, I think this pretty much sums up Sorey’s talent.

The young musician with an MA in composition from Wesleyan University and an upcoming Doctorate in Music for Composition from Columbia brought forth an impressively ambitious work influenced by the conducted improvisation method of Lawrence D. Butch Morris, among others.

Even before listening to a single note of this impressive 120 minute-long double-album (recorded in a single 15 hour-long session) I knew it was going to be one of those instances where I would profoundly regret not having any musical schooling. To be clear, The Inner Spectrum of Variables is as much a work of science as it is a product of art and, though it can be exquisitely appreciated by a layman, I am simply left in awe just thinking of the variegated layers that must reveal themselves to a trained musician’s ear.

From the start, you can tell you are listening to something special. Pianist Cory Smythe opens the record with a solo – the subtle but sublimely beautiful “Movement I (Introduction)” – establishing the piano as our first guide into the composer’s world of variables. This track also positions the first part of the record firmly in modern-classical territory, though genre delimitations are of little importance in Sorey’s work.

This is its own musical entity, of no more static consistency than a churning mass of fog (to quote John Dos Passos). And while many composers cross genres and blur the lines between musical styles, in Sorey’s case, this feels less like a construction made from various different building blocks and more like a number of assorted thematic influences reflecting off of an entirely authentic musical surface.

The short piano intro seamlessly flows into “Movement II” (one of my favorites) ceding the proverbial stage to the string section. It’s on this track more than any other that I feel the listener can get the best glimpse of Sorey’s innate understanding of constructing a coherent narrative. The string trio tells a remarkable story of patience, reflection, tension and expression. The ataractic piano appeases the strings, shifting the mood from dark and tense to almost nostalgic. When Sorey’s instrument makes its long-awaited debut in a quaking crescendo, it is just to further focus the listener’s attention on the intense and haunting strings.

Like the best composers, Sorey makes perfectly balanced use of his instrument, humbly using it to enhance, never to distract. The classical-ensemble feel of the first two tracks gracefully bows out in Movement III, with its sparks of jazzy experimentation in the form of spasmodic piano over frenetic drums and strings that hint at whale songs among other acoustic expressions of nature.

The shift towards the dissonant is subtle, not gratuitous. Its purpose isn’t to shock, but to reveal a different chapter in this musical story, one further inclined towards the deeper levels of contemplation. Also remarkable on this track is the composer’s use of silence to create space, especially around minute four, where the strings (including Tordini’s bass) break out into a veritable game of catch-me-if-you-can.

When the piano once again takes over, pace and patience become more and more important. To me, and perhaps others inclined to seeing music as a form of storytelling, Movement III sounds like the musical representation of meditation. With the mind’s descent into deeper levels of consciousness and quietude represented by the shift from playful pizzicato to solemn piano, the instruments grow calm, shifting their focus inward, much like the rampant thoughts of day-to-day life subdued by the tranquility of meditation.

Of course, the beauty of Sorey’s Variables is that, as the name suggests, the symbolism can take whichever shape the listener’s mind can conjure up. This allows the audience to participate in the work on an almost creative level, in a way achieved only by the topmost expressions of art. In this author’s opinion, the very best examples of literature leave enough room for the reader to fill with the contents of his or her imagination. Tyshawn Sorey’s compositions demonstrate that this effect can be achieved in music also.

Once again, Sorey’s drums are the last to make an appearance and, once again, their appearance is spectacular. Sorey’s introduction of the drums at around the ten-minute mark exacerbated by the tension in the strings and Smythe’s convulsive piano, collectively make for another one of the record’s best moments.

Towards the midpoint, when all instruments briefly descend into a tumult of controlled chaos, I can’t help but be reminded of John Zorn’s method of conduction, which is probably fitting seeing as how Sorey and Zorn sometimes collaborate. As the first record’s closing “movement” violently slips into a final minute of pure piano jazz, it foreshadows the more jazz-oriented vibe of the second part.

If the first of the two sides commenced with the classical beauty of the piano solo, part two opens with a contemplative, almost mystical percussion solo in “Reverie”, where Sorey’s cymbals and gongs create a mesmerizing catalog of cognition, somewhat reminiscent of Robyn Schulkowsky’s and Nils Peter Molvaer’s Hastening Westward, with strings and piano playing the part of Nils Peter Molvaer’s trumpet.

In “Movement IV”, dissonance dissolves into echoes of oriental music. The combination took me back to Zorn’s Masada String Trio and even Bar Khokba. It’s another one of my favorite tracks, mostly due to Sorey’s fantastic percussion. Though generally (and brilliantly) subdued throughout Variables, in this track, the instrumentalist side of the composer is at its most forceful. The song’s last few minutes are a sublime expression of impact, right up to the finale, when the whole song comes full circle.

The record closes with the disarmingly temperate and stridently spectral “Movement V + VI + Reprise” reminiscent of the closing tracks on many an ECM recording. Given the complexity and uniqueness of Sorey’s album, I still can’t make up my mind whether this is a good thing or not. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating composition also.

Overall, with a broadness of scope reminiscent of Kamasi Washington’s The Epic (incidentally, The Music and Myth’s Best Instrumental Record of 2015), Tyshawn Sorey’s The Inner Spectrum of variables is a visionary work, masterfully imagined by a composer whose genius extends even beyond the brilliance exhibited by many of his distinguished peers and flawlessly executed by a band whose virtuosity is uncontested.

I usually close review of such a record saying it is “highly recommended” by The Music and Myth. But The Inner Spectrum of Variables is not merely highly recommended – it is required listening for any serious music aficionado.