NPR Repost: NPR Music’s 25 Favorite Albums Of 2014 (So Far)

NPR Music’s 25 Favorite Albums Of 2014 (So Far)

June 30, 2014 5:03 AM ET
Passing around some records!

At the year’s halfway point, with summer just about to flip the calendar over to side B, it’s a challenge to get a satisfying picture of the year in music, even if you’re just looking at a single genre. Consider the voices of the couple dozen obsessive listeners from NPR Music and our public radio partners who made this list, and the only thing that remains undeniably true is that great albums come out of every genre, from every corner of the world.

What links them together? 2014 has, in its first six months, been a wonderful year for musicians who go deep. The 25 albums on this list (presented alphabetically) all start with a sound, a vibe, a concept or crucial idea. After that, they flower in different ways. One might display the range of sounds a band leader can pull out of a few fellow musicians or the depth of emotion a singer can plumb while mapping the course of desire and heartbreak. Others offer history lessons, looking back over 20 years in the life of an American city or 200 years in the life of an instrument.

All pull you in with both hands. All of them connect us as listeners to the work done by musicians who ask for more than three minutes of our time. These ones deserve it. These are our favorite albums of the year so far.

Advisory: Some of the songs on this page contain profanity.

NPR Music’s 25 Favorite Albums Of 2014 (So Far)


Ana Tijoux, Vengo


Over the last few years, Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux has released one flawless record after another, making her one of Latin America’s most beloved rappers. Her most recent album,Vengo, is no exception. It’s musically exhilarating while lyrically poignant, a difficult equilibrium that Latin hip-hop — a genre that tends to be very political — sometimes has trouble achieving. Tijoux walks the thin line that separates thoughtful from preachy with confidence: She’s at that sweet spot of being joyously combative, relaxed but resistant. Musically Vengo is also quite breathtaking. While some of her colleagues wallow in derivative beats, she proves why she’s at the top of her class with a unique blend of jazz, funk and Andean rhythms. For those who don’t know her work, this is a good time to catch up. —Jasmine Garsd



3 min 12 sec


Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire for No Witness


The word “confessional” tends to get tossed around to describe singer-songwriters who reveal — and even revel in — raw, sticky emotions. But there’s a kind of submissiveness, even apology, implied by that word that doesn’t suit Angel Olsen. Whether she’s huddled over a single acoustic guitar or backed by a muscular rock band, Olsen’s voice grabs you by the collar and looks straight through you. As commanding and assertive as its title suggests, especially in naked and foreboding songs like the seven-minute “White Fire,” Burn Your Fire for No Witness doesn’t waste a motion or a breath. Olsen’s subtle, commanding voice is the embodiment of coiled intensity: The more she seems to hold still, the harder her punches land. —Stephen Thompson


Arturo O'Farrill & The Afro Latin Orchestra, Offense of the The Drum


There’s no doubt that the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, led by pianist Arturo O’Farrill, is well versed in clave and swing. But here’s a list of other things that appear on its new album: Colombian country harp; “Iko Iko” featuring a Mardi Gras Indian chief; an mesmerizing beat pattern from Vijay Iyer; an arrangement of a work by French Romantic composer Erik Satie; Nuyorican slam poetry with scratching turntables; djembe, taiko drum and at least 26 other percussion instruments. Musical hybridity is at the heart of this band; here, it assimilates any remezcla thrown at it with furious conviction. —Patrick Jarenwattananon


They Came

7 min 26 sec


Beck, Morning Phase


If we needed any proof that albums still matter in this short-attention-span world, Beck‘s flawless twelfth album, Morning Phase, is a triumphant testimony. From the soft swells of the orchestral opener, “Cycle,” and the first strum of his guitar, the transportive effect of this slow and beautiful sonic journey begins. Made with Beck’s composer father, David Richard Campbell, and many of the same musicians behind 2002’s Sea Change (Beck’s beloved ode to heartbreak), Morning Phase could be called a companion piece, but is better described as a grown-up sequel. The songs pull at the heartstrings, and instead of pulling us downward, they are ultimately about finding the light when one lets go. Whether it is in the glow of early morning or under a blue moon, Morning Phase provides a bittersweet reminder of the temporary nature of all things, and a wiser Beck right there with us. —Carmel Holt, WFUV


Waking Light

5 min 2 sec


Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band, Landmarks


This album is led by an all-world jazz drummer but there aren’t really drum solos. It’s pastoral and tranquil when its peers are often urbane and frenetic. It feels simple — rhythmically, harmonically, structurally — in an age of complexity. So when a melody emerges, it cuts like a knife. When a saxophone reaches for that high note, the sincerity is palpable. And when the constantly simmering tension erupts, or even just hits a rolling boil, there’s a joyousness, an instant renewal of 20-year friendships, a velocity of celebration. —Patrick Jarenwattananon


David Greilsammer, Scarlatti/Cage: Sonatas


Like a crafty DJ, David Greilsammer has a knack for surprising musical juxtapositions. On the pianist’s album Baroque Conversations, from 2012, 18th-century masters like Jean-Philippe Rameau sit cheek-by-jowl with modernists like Morton Feldman. Now Greilsammer’s back at it, swapping sonatas written 200 years apart by Domenico Scarlatti and John Cage. For Greilsammer the two composers are kindred spirits, both “inventors of sound” — Scarlatti with his radical harmonies and rhythms inspired by flamenco and Cage with his prepared piano (into which he inserted nuts, bolts and rubber thingamabobs to create a percussion orchestra). His performance of Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor, K.213 exquisitely dovetails into Cage’s Sonatas XIV & XV, creating a third entity — the fascinating bridge connecting the daring and the delicate in each piece (you can listen to an excerpt here). To the “inventors” Scarlatti and Cage we can add and third name — Greilsammer, whose spunk and imagination are most welcome. —Tom Huizenga


Freddie Gibs & Madlib, Pinata


Rapper Freddie Gibbs, born and raised in Gary, Ind., met venerable producer Madlib in Los Angeles, and the album they made together is a complete work that straddles generations and sensibilities. The pair’s conception of gangster music sounds more like crushed velvet than velour, dramatizing the turmoil of a narrator who could be Sincere’s older son, or the grandchild of Youngblood Priest. On one song, “Robes,” Gibbs quotes 1987 Babyface and invites two ’90s babies to jump on. Throughout, his eye is unsparing, never more so than when it’s turned on himself. On “Broken” he begins with the Basmala and later, talking about his inherited infidelity, says “Honestly, I know I’m out here f—-ing up.” Gibbs’ phrasing is virtuosic; his words sound like they’ve levitated. No guest — not Scarface, not Raekwon, notEarl, not Danny Brown — outshines Gibbs over beats that are glassine and big-bodied and as real as can be. —Frannie Kelley



4 min 8 sec


Gordon Voidwell, BAD ETUDES


Like Frankenstein’s monster, BAD ÉTUDES is stitched together, alive and breathing by the hand of its master, Bronx musician Gordon Voidwell. Oozing funk, pop, R&B and otherworldly inspiration, the record is filled to the brim with thoughtfully constructed modulations and manipulations — imagine a Prince from the future who says, “To hell with all these instruments. Let me see how far I can freak a keyboard.” With his production serving as a constantly tilting landscape of audacity, Voidwell takes it a step further by altering his vocals, veering them toward femininity then back again. He throws us off and turns us on; winds us up and breaks it all down. As a whole or piece-by-piece, this album is a funky sci-fi experiment gone right. —Kiana Fitzgerald


1 Trap Mind

3 min 30 sec

Bad Études is available for purchase on Bandcamp.


Hurray for the Riff Raff, Small Town Heroes


Considering the songs that populate Hurray for the Riff Raff‘s latest release, it makes sense that they titled the disc Small Town Heroes. Here are the voices of battered women taking their power back; defiantly hopeful lovers; neighborhoods keeping their pride amid surging crime waves; the outlaw with the yearning heart; and of course the band on the road, longing for home. They’re songs about a city revitalizing itself, people coming into their own. Its rhythms and melodies call to mind everything from Appalachian tradition to the Mississippi Delta and the old folk-blues. Front-woman and songwriter Alynda Lee Segarra sings every lyric with a haunting, raw honesty. Where her voice doesn’t tremble like it’s shaking the rain out, it soars and bops like a determined bird flying against a breeze. Small Town Heroes is an arresting, memorable disc from a band that’s only just getting started. —Kim Ruehl, Folk Alley


Jeff Ballard Trio, Time's Tales


Drummer Jeff Ballard had never led a recording before this one, which is amazing considering how many recordings he’s been a part of. His debut album reflects most of his divergent impulses toward the worldly and the familiar, the knotted bundles of odd-meter asymmetry and the silky-smooth groove — and does so with only three guys. It works because while his two collaborators play guitar (Lionel Loueke, from Benin) and sax (Miguel Zenón, from Puerto Rico), everyone’s a percussionist at heart. That rapid fire rhythmic dialogue, and some nifty guitar noises, enables a skeleton crew to throw a street parade. —Patrick Jarenwattananon


Virgin Forest

7 min 42 sec


Kassem Mosse, Workshop 19


On a string of singles released over the better part of a decade, Leipzig’s Kassem Mosse has found the sweet spot between stripped-down production and melody-driven songwriting. Making music that’s warmer than much of the techno coming out of Germany and sparser than much of the house music coming from the States, Mosse is hailed again and again for blazing his own trail, and sucking in others under his wake. An auteur to the bone, Mosse’s debut LP showcases the flexibility of his sound. It’s murky and melancholic, ambient at times, but also made to get people up out of their seats. Once again, Kassem Mosse finds the space between expected and inaccessible. —Sami Yenigun



2 min 19 sec


Leon Vynehall, Music for the Uninvited

Remember what it felt like to listen to your parents’ cassettes when you were a young child? Kind of, but not really, right? We recall snippets of songs, the stack of plastic cases below the car stereo, maybe the auto-reverse click between “Darling Nikki” and “When Doves Cry.” For many of us, it’s an impressionist painting in our mind of the moment we first fell in love with music. British dance producer Leon Vynehall called on his fuzzy memories of low fidelity while writing his debut album, Music For The Uninvited, a sample-fueled fusion of house, disco, funk and soul. He even ends each “side” of the record with that unmistakable *snap* of a play button popping back into place. It’s an old-skool labor of love by one of the most promising young minds in dance music, nostalgic and next-level at the same time. —Otis Hart


Los Lobos, Si Se Puede


Over 40 years ago music played a crucial role in one of this country’s most important civil rights struggles: not in the Jim Crow South but in the agricultural fields of California, where the United Farm Workers (UFW) was organizing laborers into a union for the first time ever. Traditional Mexican corridos were reworked to call people to march, picket and strike. The music was made by some of the workers themselves, as well as members of the UFW, and you pretty much had to be out in the fields to hear it — until 1976 when the album Si Se Puede was released as a fundraiser for the UFW. Herb Albert donated his A&M Records studios to a group of young Chicano musicians who called themselves Los Lobos del Este de los Angeles and who gathered some of their friends to record some of the music that had become part of the farm worker movement.

The band shortened its name and eventually made a big noise of their own, and 38 years later, long after it had gone out print, the music was finally digitally re-released this spring to coincide with the release of a biopic about César Chávez. The themes of social justice are timeless but more so is the notion that music can indeed help change the world. We seem to have forgotten that. That’s why this music, now nearly four decades old, still matters. —Felix Contreras


No Nos Moveran

3 min 22 sec


Majid Bekkas, Al Qantara


Al Qantara (“The Bridge”) is a fitting title for the new album by Majid Bekkas. The native Moroccan’s home country has long been a nexus of African, Eastern and Western cultures. Bekkas is steeped in Gwana, an ancient Moroccan spiritual trance music, but on Al Qantarahe adroitly fuses the tradition with jazz and African styles. His principal tools are the oud and the guembri, a three-stringed guitar-sized instrument covered in camel skin that produces the low notes of a double bass. With his Afro-Oriental Jazz Trio, Bekkas guides a journey through traditional Moroccan tunes (“Bania”), jazz staples (Don Cherry’s “Guinea”) and his own mesmerizing creations. “Choroq,” after an extended oud introduction, gives way to Manuel Hermia’s evocative basuri (bamboo flute). When Khalid Kouhen’s Indian tabla drums kick in, the piece takes flight with a melody of sublime beauty. Hopefully Al Qantara will bridge yet one more gap — the one between the notoriety Bekkas enjoys in Morocco and that which we hope he finds far beyond. —Tom Huizenga



10 min 0 sec


Miranda Lambert, Platinum


Miranda Lambert likes to say in interviews that she’s no role model. And thank goodness. On her fifth studio album, country’s longtime self-aware bad girl offers something more powerful than craziness and kerosene: a deliberately holistic portrait of 21st-century femininity, with room for vulnerability, regret, gentle nostalgia, hope and plenty of humor. Lambert speaks through characters who are married and independent, sexually confident and anxious about their looks, longing for home comforts and eager for the wide open road. The music ranges just as widely as Lambert’s world view, from traditional bluegrass to honky-tonk rock to the well-burnished country radio requires. Lambert herself always retains her individualistic edge. “You don’t know nothin’ about girls,” she sings, confronting stereotypes in the album’s lead track. Don’t worry, Miranda will school you. —Ann Powers


Owen Pallett, In Conflict


Once the golden boy of Canada’s now decade-long indie invasion, Owen Pallett made his best album by tracking the growing pains of becoming an adult: solitude, self-destruction, depression and regret cut with a confidence borne of the realization that you, you grown human person, have survived long enough to build a life made out of your own accumulated choices. Everything that made Pallett’s name is here on In Conflict: the lonely, looped violin; lyrical details that weave soul-baring into mundane; the tense/triumphant orchestration that won him a spot as Arcade Fire’s resident classical guy (not to mention an Oscar nomination for scoring Her last year). Any one of these would make him a tremendous talent. All of them, knit together with new authority and purpose, make him singular. —Jacob Ganz


The Riverbed

3 min 44 sec


St. Louis Symphony/Robertson, Adams: City Noir/Saxophone Concerto


Composer John Adams wrote City Noir as an homage to the City of Angels — and it is at once a cinematically scaled nod to 1940s and ’50s film scores and, especially in the first movement, an intricate bundle full of knotted melodies climbing inside each other. The saxophone concerto that accompanies City Noir carries bebop in its DNA, and soloist Timothy McAllister is simply outstanding. Meanwhile, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and conductor David Robertson are born naturals for this music, turning in fresh, dynamic and invigorating performances. —Anastasia Tsioulcas


St. Vincent, St. Vincent

I’ve always thought Annie Clark’s music and guitar playing was pretty damn good — then she released her fourth St. Vincent record and I was floored. All of the qualities I’ve come to love in her music — the quirky lyrics, songs with hairpin turns and her idiosyncratic guitar playing — are here, sharper than ever. There are songs about her Jesus and her mother, about political activist Huey Newton, about running naked in the desert and the meaning of it all in this digital age. The songs are fun, sometimes funny and sonically a treat for the ears. —Bob Boilen


Stromae, Racine Caree


It’s hard to pin the Belgian artist Stromae down, and that’s just how he likes it: a little EDM, a little hip-hop, a little R&B, a little Eurodance, a little Congolese rumba, a little tango … and yet it all works, beautifully. One of the smartest songwriters around, Stromae navigates the shoals of modern life — from relationships and race to the financial crisis and existential concerns — with grace, humor, a wink and a teeny bit of swagger. There are so many tracks to fall in love with here — “Formidable,” “Tous Les Mêmes,” “Ave Cesaria,” “Ta Fête,” “Humain A L’Eau,” the global smash “Papaoutai” — that the whole album is an unmitigated, heavy-repeat pleasure. And his live show is, improbably, even better. —Anastasia Tsioulcas


Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music


There are people who fret about the health and purity of country music and there are those who just keep the damn stuff alive. On his second solo album, Sturgill Simpson pumps oxygen into familiar forms — the honky-tonk all-night drunk, the philosophical road song, the countrypolitan ballad, the gospel singalong, the trucker anthem — with the no-fuss creativity of a rebel with a cause, and a plan. The Kentucky native, now living in Nashville, set out to make songs that honored tradition but rejected easy associations: Instead of odes to girls with painted-on jeans, Simpson applies his majestic baritone to sometimes psychedelic ruminations about fate, personal agency and the Zen interconnectedness of all things. His muscular touring band keeps Simpson grounded while letting him range wide. The result is hard country with no edges made for people with big sky minds. —Ann Powers


Sylvan Esso, Sylvan Esso


An unexpected, intoxicating left-field debut, Sylvan Esso captures the sound of two equally unlikely musicians: singer Amelia Meath, known for singing a cappella folk in Mountain Man, and producer Nick Sanborn, known for playing bass in the psychedelic roots-rock band Megafaun. Neither had hinted at anything that sounds quite like this batch of intricately crafted, emotionally resonant, strikingly catchy electro-pop songs. Music this sturdy and remix-ready doesn’t generally come from such a distinct and powerful lyrical point of view: Meath’s often hauntingly ambivalent words seize just as much attention as the multidimensional sound beds on which they’re placed. “Coffee” is the most unstoppably great song here — maybe the most unstoppably great song of the year, period — but everything else on Sylvan Esso grabs hard, too, from the playful provocation of “Hey Mami” to the wobbly anthemic rush of “Play It Right.” —Stephen Thompson



4 min 28 sec


Toni Braxton & Babyface, Love Marriage & Divorce


Rich doesn’t come close to describing Toni Braxton‘s voice. More than 20 years after her first duet with Babyface, with the mic capturing every little thing that comes out of her mouth — every catch, every low key run, even the bitten off end of a word — she sounds at once impossible and exactly like your friend did the last time her heart got broken. There are overblown moments on Love, Marriage & Divorce, but most of the album feels personal, and all that reverb helps to make it feel interior, even private. Babyface’s voice is tangy and refined. On “Roller Coaster” he’s punchy, using his voice like a rhythm instrument. Braxton takes liberties with the beat. Her two solo turns, “I Wish,” which is too real, and “I’d Rather Be Broke,” aren’t occasions to show off; they further the narrative. The album sticks to its story, and in the process delivers a set of mature songs masterfully detailed. —Frannie Kelley


Roller Coaster

4 min 23 sec


Triptykon, Melana Chasmata


In his third band in three decades, Tom Warrior continues to be one of metal’s most thoughtful innovators. As visionary as Warrior has been in Hellhammer and Celtic Frost, Warrior works best in tandem with a band that locks into his dark world. Triptykon’s second album, Melana Chasmata, is a bottomless pit where nocturnal creatures breed and kill, uncovering atmospheres and riffs still unknown. —Lars Gotrich


The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream


The War On Drugs‘ Lost In The Dream is the sound of tomorrow’s greatest classic rock today. Lead singer and guitarist Adam Granduciel’s epic guitar playing and songwriting on album tracks like “Under The Pressure,” “In Reverse” and the seven minute “An Ocean In Between The Waves,” are infused with mesmerizing SpringsteenPettyVelvet Undergroundinfluences. He’s got a vocal style that brings to mind Dylan circa Blood On The Tracks. It’s possible to deduce the themes of the album by the names of the songs. “Eyes To The Wind,” “The Haunting Idle,” the title song and the slow burning “Suffering,” express matters of the heart and soul. There’s plenty of searching, longing, and questioning, set to a soundtrack of a psychedelic heartland. Lost In The Dream is a triumphant, transcendent, classic rock album — whether or not you hear the Springsteenisms that subtly inform the record. —Bruce Warren, WXPN


YG, My Krazy Life


After the success of his platinum selling single “My Hitta” and Drake-flavored “Who Do You Love,” YG released his debut album, My Krazy Life earlier this year. My Krazy Life has the feeling of a traditional West Coast album (skits included): You can hear Dr. Dre bass lines and some Bay Area bounce slips in thanks to the production of DJ Mustard. YG is a ’90s baby straight outta Compton, the storied neighborhood that brought us rap icons N.W.A. When the good kid from the maad city himself, Kendrick Lamar, meets up with his bad a$$ neighbor YG on “Really Be (Smoking N Drinking)” they sound vulnerable exposing the harsh realities of inner city life and their coping mechanisms (Kush and alcohol). My Krazy Life is his cautionary tale about the trappings of street life — the highs, the lows and eventually redemption. —Cedric Shine

All album photos by Sarah Tilotta/NPR


Coming Nov. 4: Miguel Zenón’s – Identities are Changeable











Saxophonist/Composer Zenón is Multiple Grammy Nominee

and Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellow



This is home

in the sense that

these are the streets

I grew up in,

this is where my friends are.

But that’s home

because that’s where my parents came from

and they always talk about that

and I dream about it.

— Juan Flores


Alto saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón asked his friends the question he had been asking himself:


What does it mean to be Puerto Rican in 21st-century New York City?


That was the point of departure for Identities Are Changeable, the startlingly original album by Miguel Zenón, who grew up in the island’s main city of San Juan and came to New York in 1998 to pursue a career in music.


Zenón‘s experience of moving via the air bridge from the small Antillean island to the landing strip 1600 miles north is something he shares with hundreds of thousands of other “Puerto Rican-New Yorkers.”

Puerto Ricans are not immigrants in the United States: for nearly a century – since 1917 – Puerto Ricans have, unlike other natives of Latin America, been US citizens, able to come and go as they please between the island of Puerto Rico and the mainland. When they come north, overwhelmingly they go to

New York City. After different waves of migration over the decades – most numerously in the 1950s – about 1.2 million “Puerto Rican-Americans” were living in the greater New York area as of 2012.


* * *


Miguel Zenón has become one of jazz’s most original thinkers. Today, at the age of 37, he’s one of the best-known alto saxophonists in jazz. The quartet he leads has been working together for more than ten years, building its ensemble coherence on stages all over the world. But Zenón’s more than a great musician and bandleader.


One of only a handful of jazz musicians to be chosen for the coveted MacArthur fellowships (in 2008), he’s at the forefront of a new movement that in recent years has brought the composer to a new prominence in jazz. But beyond his facility at writing and playing music, there is a great intellectual subject at the center of Miguel Zenón‘s artistic world: the complexity of Puerto Rican culture.


Beginning with his third album as a leader, Jíbaro (2005), and continuing with Esta Plena (2009) and Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook (2011) (both Grammy-nominated), and Oye!!! Live In Puerto Rico (2013), Miguel Zenón has created a series of thoughtfully framed works that interpret different facets of Puerto Rican culture. Zenón’s Puerto Rico is a bit like Gabriel García Márquez’s Colombia or Gilberto Gil’s Brazil: the highly focused center of an imaginative universe that looks to the world while being rooted at home. It serves a springboard for his personal style: no one else’s Puerto Rico – and no one else’s jazz – sounds like Miguel Zenón‘s.


Identities Are Changeable, Zenón’s powerful new composition, is a song cycle for large ensemble, with his longtime quartet (Luis Perdomo, piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass; Henry Cole, drums) at the center, incorporating recorded voices from a series of interviews conducted by Zenón. Commissioned as a multi-media work by Montclair State University’s Peak Performances series, it has a multi-media element with audio and video footage from the interviews, complemented by a video installation created by artist David Dempewolf. It’s been performed at such prestigious venues as the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall in Boston, The SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco, and Zankel Hall in the Carnegie Hall complex in New York City.


The album version of Identities Are Changeable is a labor of love, produced by Miguel Zenón without commercial backing. It will be released November 4, 2014 as only the second title on his personal label, Miel Music.


I think more and more people are realizing

that you can be more than one cultural self

at the same time,

and you’re at the crossings of those.

Rather than being just squarely in one,

you’ll be at the crossings.

— Juan Flores


The core of Identities Are Changeable is a series of English-language interviews Miguel Zenón conducted with seven New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent. His initial impetus for the project came from reading The Diaspora Strikes Back: Caribeño Tales of Learning and Turning, a book by cultural theorist Juan Flores based on interviews with Puerto Ricans who had returned to the island after living on the mainland. Zenón turned the tables and interviewed Flores, whose insightful commentary grounds Zenón’s finished work.


Other interviewees who weave in and out of the musical texture are Miguel Zenón‘s sister Patricia Zenón; the young musicians Luqués Curtis and Camilo Molina; actress Sonia Manzano; poet Bonafide Rojas; and family friend Alex Rodríguez. This is speech as music: their recorded voices, speaking off-the-cuff in their own surroundings with the sound of the city around them, tell the story. Writing about it in The Wall Street Journal, jazz journalist Larry Blumenfeld quoted Zenón:


“I asked pretty much the same things to everyone,” [Zenón] said, “the essential question being ‘What does it mean to be Puerto Rican?'” As Mr. Zenón analyzed his footage, themes emerged: Do you speak English or Spanish? How is tradition passed on?


Zenón identified key excerpts from the interviews and grouped them into six thematically related clusters: national identity, home, blackness, language, the next generation, and music. As he began writing instrumental music to support the voices, those clusters became six fully elaborated musical movements, plus an intro and outro, making for a 75-minute work of symphonic dimensions. 


I always thought I was the blackest Puerto Rican.

Because I was a Black Panther

before I was a Young Lord,

because I liked Hendrix

before I liked Hector Lavoe.

— Bonafide Rojas


Identities Are Changeable showcases Miguel Zenón‘s most ambitious instrumental writing yet. It’s scored for a 16-piece large ensemble, consisting of Zenón’s working quartet supplemented by five saxes, four trumpets, and three trombones.


If you think you already know what that sounds like, think again: though this pulsating, percolating music is intensely rhythmic, it’s not achieved through the now traditional mambo-style section writing. It’s still Latin, and it’s still jazz, but this sonority – Zenón‘s first big-band score – presents a different kind of compositional and orchestrational challenge, and a different kind of polyrhythm. It’s more like modern symphonic writing, with layered multiple meters that give new meaning to the term “harmonic rhythm” as they create a translucent texture.


Zenón explains: “all of the compositions explore the idea of multiple rhythmic structures coexisting with each other (e.g., 5 against 7, 3 against 2, 5 against 3).” Drummer Henry Cole has his hands (and feet) full holding down the simultaneous time streams, as does Zenón when he conducts the group live. The players are a selected elite team – hear John Ellis’s tenor solo on “Same Fight,” or Tim Albright’s trombone feature on “First Language.” There’s no way to convey in words the impact of the orchestral effects, but reviewing the Zankel Hall performance for The New York Times, Ben Ratliff writes:


“[The] sound and language didn’t directly suggest traditional Puerto Rican music or traditional jazz. Its rhythm was phrased almost completely in stacked or odd meter, with parts of the band shifting into double or half time, and Mr. Zenón’s saxophone darting around the chord changes or resting on top, in long tones.

There was drama and momentum in the music’s developing harmonic movement; at times a shift to a new chord felt like an event. All the music was deeply hybridized and original, complex but clear.”


It’s all at the service of Zenón’s relentless curiosity, as he writes in the album’s liner notes:


When I first came into contact with Puerto Rican communities in this country, I was shocked to meet second and third generation Puerto Ricans who were as connected to the traditions of their parents/grandparents and as proud to be Puerto Rican as the people I knew back home.  Where was this sense of pride coming from? What did they consider their first language? Their home? What did it mean to them to be Puerto Rican? What are the elements that help us shape our national identity?


About Miguel Zenón

Multiple Grammy nominee and Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellow Miguel Zenón is one of a select group of musicians who have masterfully balanced and blended the often contradictory poles of innovation and tradition. Widely considered one of the most groundbreaking and influential saxophonists of his generation, he has also developed a unique voice as a composer and as a conceptualist, concentrating his efforts on perfecting a fine mix between Latin American folkloric music and jazz. Born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Zenón has released eight recordings as a leader, including Oye!!! Live in Puerto Rico (2013), Rayuela (2012) and the Grammy nominated Alma Adentro (2011). As a sideman he has worked with jazz luminaries such as The SFJAZZ Collective, Charlie Haden, David Sánchez, The Mingus Big Band, Bobby Hutcherson, Fred Hersch, Kenny Werner and Steve Coleman. Zenón has been featured in publications such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, as well as gracing the cover of DownBeat. He has also toped the Rising Star Alto Sax category of the DownBeat Critic’s Poll on four different occasions. As a composer he has been commissioned by SFJAZZ, The New York State Council for the Arts, Peak Performances, Chamber Music America, The John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and many of his peers. Zenón has given hundreds of lectures and master classes at institutions all over the world, and is a permanent faculty member at New England Conservatory in Boston, MA. In 2011 he founded Caravana Cultural, a program which presents free-of-charge jazz concerts in rural areas of Puerto Rico.


In April 2008 Zenón received a fellowship from the prestigious John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. Later that year, he was one of 25 distinguished individuals chosen to receive the coveted MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the “Genius Grant.”


Identities are Changeable, his ninth recording as a leader, will be released November 4th, 2014.

For more info:


Miguel Zenón- Tour Dates


JULY 12:  Miguel Zenón Quartet @ Festival de Jazz en Jalisco, Guadalajara, Mexico

AUG 1:  Miguel Zenón Identities Big Band @ Newport Jazz Festival, Newport, RI 

AUG 30:   Miguel Zenón Quartet @ UW-Stevens Point Festival, Stevens Point, WI  

AUG 31:   Miguel Zenón Quartet @ Chicago Jazz Festival, Chicago, IL 

SEPT 27:  Miguel Zenón Quartet, Beantown Jazz Festival, Boston, MA

NOV 2:  Miguel Zenón Quartet @ Princeton Jazz Nights, Princeton, NJ

NOV 5:       Miguel Zenón Quartet @ The Atlas, Washington, DC 

NOV 6:         Miguel Zenón Quartet @ Outpost, Albuquerque, NM 

NOV 7:  Miguel Zenón Quartet @ Clifton Center, Louisville, KY 

NOV 8 & 9:   Miguel Zenón Quartet @ Dazzle, Denver, CO

NOV 10:         Miguel Zenón Quartet @ Earshot Jazz, Seattle, WA  

NOV 12:       Miguel Zenón Quartet @ Redwood Jazz Alliance, Arcata, CA  

NOV 14:       Miguel Zenón Quartet @ Jimmy Mak’s, Portland, OR

NOV 15:         Miguel Zenón Quartet @ Broad Stage, Los Angeles, CA

NOV 1823: Miguel Zenón Quartet @ Village Vanguard, New York, NY



FEB 12:     Miguel Zenón Quartet @ Bimhuis, Amsterdam, The Netherlands 

FEB 13:      Miguel Zenón Quartet @ Paradox, Tilbourg, The Netherlands

FEB 14:        Miguel Zenón Quartet @ AMR Geneve, Geneva, Switzerland

FEB 18:   Miguel Zenón Quartet @ Pannonica, Nantes, France

FEB 20:         Miguel Zenón Quartet @ San Severo, Italy

FEB 21:         Miguel Zenón Quartet @ Jazz Club Ferrara, Ferrara, Italy

FEB 26:         Miguel Zenón Quartet @ Jazz Club Singen, Singen, Germany

FEB 27:         Miguel Zenón Quartet @ Birdland, Neuberg, Germany


MAR 5:  Miguel Zenón Quartet @ JazzSchule Jazz Club, Basel, Switzerland

MAR 20:  Miguel Zenón Quartet @ + Video, Hostos College, New York, NY

MAR 21:     Miguel Zenón Quartet @ Montgomery  Community College, Blue Bell, PA

MAR 26-29:  Miguel Zenón Quartet @ Jazz Showcase, Chicago, IL

Repost Revive – Music: A Great Weekend In Harlem

The Harlem Arts Festival is set to kick off this Friday, June 27th. For a third consecutive year, the HAF will seek to increase visibility for home-grown artists and businesses. Yours truly will be presenting the opening night party at MIST Harlem featuring Andrew Kaminski, Emily BradenCharisa the ViolinDiva, and Mad SattaDj Raydar Ellis will then be manning the wheel-of-steel as he spins tunes all night for a dance party after the performances. You won’t want to miss our opening night party at MIST so get your tickets now.


HAF Postcard 2014Following the opening festivities comes the heart of the festival located at Harlem’s iconic Marcus Garvey Park from Saturday, June 28th to Sunday, June 29th. Come out and watch artists from all disciplines showcase their work at the Richard Rodger’s Amphitheater, the festival’s main stage. Adding to the Richard Rodger’s main stage is a second stage located near the northwest entrance to the park and on the HAF Gallery Walk. Discussions, workshops, and a Kid’s Corner are also featured in this all ages festival so make sure to invite your niece, nephew, uncle, auntie, great-uncle, great-auntie twice removed, and that annoying neighbor who lives directly above you. 

The HAF’s executive director, Neal Ludevig, had this to say about this year’s annual gathering:

“The Harlem Arts Festival is becoming an annual destination for not only for local residents, but for people from all over the city. It’s been amazing to watch the festival and the HAF family grow exponentially year after year.”
Head over to the Harlem Arts Festival’s official website for more info and all the latest news.


Repost Revive – Music: Ted Gioia & Kenny Gorelick’s Evil Empire

Historian and critic Ted Gioia brings up hard hitting points that highlight the current state of jazz in an article aptly titled “Jazz (The Music of Coffee and Donuts) Has Respect, But It Needs Love.” In the article, Mr. Gioia briefly references a study by the University of Arkansas that indicates thatjazz makes your food taste better (“Cornbread” anyone?), how Peet’s Coffee Shop launched a “Jazz Giants” station on Pandora, and how at any given moment Kind of Blue could be playing at any of Starbuck’s 20,000 outlets worldwide. But this wasn’t just a nonsensical article about the relationship between Kenny Gorelick‘s evil empire blasting straight-ahead albums to sell coffee. Ted Gioia – who has penned several notable books like The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the RepertoireWest Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California 1945-1960and The History of Jazz – isn’t writing in order to harp about coffee and jazz. The article hits at a much deeper level.



Having grown up in a society where colleges offer performance degrees in jazz, it’s difficult to imagine a time when jazz was considered the devil’s music. I’ve conducted enough interviews with enough notable artists from Ambrose Akinmusire to José James to tell you that they don’t feel that being a jazz musician is a social taboo. What is striking in Mr. Gioia’s article is how he reflects upon “a deeper attitudinal shift among the general public.” The esteemed historian goes on to say, “Jazz music, I suspect, is perceived much differently nowadays than it was a generation ago.”

Jazz’s association with sophistication isn’t surprising. The music of Mozart and Bach are usually associated with sophistication. But this wasn’t always the case. A waltz – before it became piano music repertoire – was a form of dance and was usually performed at parties. A gigue wasn’t just a piece where we can marvel at Glen Gould‘s technique, it was for dancing.


Likewise, swing wasn’t just a phrase that dudes at jam session use to vibe each other if someone wasn’t “swingin’ hard enough.” It was a form of dance. I’m reminded of an interview I once conducted with trumpeter Etienne Charles about the importance of dance in jazz and in music. Charles had this to say about his thoughts on dance music:

“If you’re talking about Count Basie‘s music, that’s dance music. A lot of Duke Ellington‘s records—that’s based on dance rhythms.”

So what’s the connection between Kenny Gorelick’s evil empire, Ted Gioia’s article, Bach and Mozart, dance music, and jazz have to do with Revive? As stated in an article written earlier this week about the late Horace Silver, we are in the business of generating the feel-good and bringing the stank face back into fashion. It is this ethos that drives us to do what we do from concert promotions and presentations, to artist interviews, and articles like these.

The core of the Mr. Gioia’s article comes at the end when he writes:

“Let me be blunt: I don’t want the next generation of music lovers to associate jazz with Frappuccinos and frosted donuts.”

Bill Kirchner, another notable historian who I had the extreme fortune to study with at The New School, once told our history class that he feels uneasy whenever he goes to jazz concerts and sees more people around his age group. Mr. Kirchner is a man rife with stories about the greatest jazz legends. Listen, the man can probably tell you the color socks Coltrane was wearing during the Giant Steps sessions. But out of all the many things that he imparted to us in the three semesters of classes I took with him, his concern about jazz’s listening demographic struck a chord with me – a very, very altered chord with all sorts of extensions and sorts.

Like I’ve said, Mr. Gioia’s concerns aren’t new and the museumification of jazz is what happened to the music of Mozart and Bach many years ago. While Mr. Gioia’s concerns about the dwindling record sales and the association of jazz with fraps and donuts are commendable, I’m also reminded of another great music thinker who once rapped these verses in a song called “I Am Music” from an album titled Electric Circus:

You can’t categorize me, my mind’s a art
Inside my heart, it ain’t about climbing charts
I’m the one you roll with when your ride is smart
The change that came, the change that comes
I change with chords and I kick it with drums
Get blow with horns and did it on the one
Riffed for guitars, for the Lord I sung
Spun around the world at parties and weddings
Wherever I go I create the setting
You know me from lessons or your pops collections
Whether whole or half stepping I’m a blessing
Yo I am music.

Rest assured Mr. Gioia, as long as we at Revive are around, the next generation will never associate jazz with Kenny Gorelick’s evil empire.

Repost Okay Player: Prince Wants To Release A Solo Record + Streamline The Music Industry

Prince Paisley Park Performance

Prince recently pulled an um… Prince when he invited a contributor from Minneapolis’ Star Tribune to rap about a few things. The tribune’s Jon Bream had the distinct honor of being taken to the Paisley Park compound to listen to some of the purple one’s new funk and discuss a new solo project that had come together recently, totally independent of his anxiously awaited full-length with 3rdEyeGirl Plectrum Electrum. In a true-blue move out of Prince’s Book Of Social Judo, the artist did not even show to the intimate listening party. Rather, he opted to conduct the feedback session via speakerphone, no doubt phoning in from another room in his house.

He went on to speak with Bream about this funkier dolo record, a song with Rita Ora that he’s been dying to unleash, how the release process has been painstakingly slow — particularly when attempting to contact label execs — even with his freshly inked deal with Warner Bros. and how he finds that pace to be indicative of the industry at large. He explained :

“Every No. 1 song, every Top 10 song, every song in the Top 40 is at least six months old, we should be able to make music and put it out now.”

Bream notes that their were at least three exceptional cuts on the new LP, including “The Golden Ring,” which he describes as “percolating electro-funk, an update of classic Prince with a lyric that referenced the notions of ‘wild and rude’ from his previous days”; “This Could Be Us,” a ballad inspired by a meme of him riding his motorcycle with Apollonia in tow from Purple Rain and a “funkier and nastier” rework of his 3rdEyeGirl bopper “FUNK N’ ROLL.”  So as always, there’s plenty in the works from the great sage. Head over to Star Tribune for the full script and keep your eyes and ears locked for the latest from his Purple Majesty.

REPOST OKAY PLAYER: Kanye West Talks J Dilla & Madlib In ‘Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton’ Bonus Clip

Kanye West Talks J Dilla & Madlib In 'Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton' Bonus Clip

Kanye West was one of countless luminaries interviewed for their take on some Stones Throw‘s most influential contributions to hip-hop’s ever evolving landscape in the documentary Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton. In a newly surfaced extended bonus clip from the ST chronicle, Yeezy can be found discussing the influence and legacy of J Dillacomparing him to iconic figures like Michael JacksonSteve JobsBiggie andTupac. He then goes on to describe the sense of duty and obligation he feels as a producer living after Dilla, claiming to work on the GOAT’s behalf and constantly keeping his voice in mind when creating to make sure all would have been kosher if Jay Dee could have heard it.

West goes on to describe what it was like working with Madlibcalling on the Beat Konducta to come with some of that new raw. It’s a true treat of a clip, from what seems to be a bonus section from the upcoming DVD release of the documentary, which features interviews and words from the aforementioned Ye’, plus Questlove, Madlib,Flying LotusPeanut Butter WolfCommonTalib KweliDam-Funk and so many more (not to mention an extensive portfolio of unseen live footage of their star-stunting roster.) Watch a rarely sentimental Kanye give his thoughts on Dilla’s place in the pop hierarchy at the time marks 21:44 and 24:09 below and be sure to cop Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton on DVD and its Madlib-headed OST via today.

REPOST OKAY PLAYER: Ma Dukes Speaks On J Dilla’s ‘The King Of Beats’ Posthumous Boxset Release

Ma Dukes Speaks On J Dilla's 'The King Of Beats' Posthumous Boxset Release

Ma Dukes is a woman with a whole lotta weight to bear. As both survivor and manager of her son J Dilla‘s estate, one can imagine that it might be a bit daunting to get a grasp of such an immense body of work, especially after that storage unit debacle, doubling or even tripling that catalogue with tapes no one had ever heard. But whatever the downsides the upside is…it seems we’ll get yet another posthumous release. In a year that’s already seen 3 in The Diary, Lost Scrolls Vol. 1 and the Diamond & Ice EP, we’ll see another page added to what is already a deep posthumous release schedule in the form of Ma Dukes’ handpicked and supervised The King Of Beats box set.

As a longtime naysayer in regards to repackaged donuts with varying degrees of MC aptitude, to hear that there were plans to bring yet another tape to surface was actually pretty unsettling. But in this particular instance, it seems Mama may truly know best, as there don’t seem to be any swagger-jacking local MCs to spit garbage over Dilla’s fortified audible gold. She explains in an interview with Rolling Stone :

“This project came about by a lot of soulsearching and meditation as to what can I do now that my son has so many bootleg projects out by unknown artists. Now that I’m out of mourning and full of insight and feeling my son’s energy radiate around me, I wanted to do something different but iconic; Something that people would preserve and relish for a lifetime that spoke quality.”

The latest batch of funk to drop from beyond the grave will be spread across more mediums than you can simultaneously play, rolling-out on four 10-inch vinyl pressings, a cassette with 5 extra beats on it and a floppy (yes, a floppy) of an extra beat, essentially covering the gamut of how his goliath catalogue came to be. We got a taste of the aptly named “Filth” last week, and I tell ya, I get the feeling we’ll be getting a few more before that late August day. We’ll have plenty more on The King Of Beats as we creep up on its release, so be sure to hold tight. You can cop the preorder for this mammoth release tomorrow via Head over to Rolling Stone for the full script.


The Catch in Starbucks’ Offer of Free College Education for Workers

Diane Ravitch's blog

Starbucks received wonderful publicity for its offer to pay the tuition of thousands of workers who took online courses at Arizona State University.

But there is a catch.

“Any Starbucks employee who works at least 20 hours per week will soon be able to complete his/her junior and senior years of college at Arizona State University (ASU) Online, thanks to a deal between the coffeehouse colossus and the institute of higher learning. But not everyone thinks that the new plan is such a great deal for Starbucks employees.

The Starbucks College Achievement Plan, which replaces an earlier tuition assistance program in the company’s benefits package, was officially unveiled at a public forum in New York’s Times Center. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put in an appearance at the forum during which he told Starbucks employees, “I urge you to take advantage of this.”

A joint statement from Starbucks…

View original post 396 more words

REPOST NPR: Legendary Pianist Horace Silver Dies At 85

Legendary Pianist Horace Silver Dies At 85

June 18, 2014 5:17 PM ET
Horace Silver performs for television in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1979.

Horace Silver performs for television in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1979.

JazzSign/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis

Pianist Horace Silver, whose potent and catchy combination of blues, funk and Latin sounds shifted the jazz landscape in the 1950s and ’60s, died Wednesday morning at his home in New Rochelle, N.Y. He died of natural causes, according to his son, Gregory Silver. He was 85. As a bandleader, Horace Silver mentored some of the hottest musicians of his era. As a composer, he devised numerous jazz standards still played today. Silver grew up in Norwalk, Conn. He was 11 when he and and his father stumbled upon a swing band one warm Sunday night. It was the orchestra led by Jimmie Lunceford“And I saw all these black guys getting out of the bus with their instruments, and I said, ‘Dad, can we stay and just hear them play one number? Just one number,’ “ he told NPR in 1996. ” ‘No, you gotta go to school in the morning, gotta get up early.’ … I begged and pleaded, begged and pleaded, so he’s, ‘OK, one number.’ ” His dad let him stay for three tunes. Silver credits that one event for a lifetime chasing jazz as a pianist and bandleader. By his early 20s, he was a good enough pianist to be hired by saxophonist Stan Getz. That was 1950. He moved to the jazz hub of New York City the next year. Soon after, Silver co-founded the Jazz Messengers with drummer Art Blakey. It was a hothouse for young talent and future stars. Some later joined Silver’s bands — musicians like saxophonist Hank Mobley and trumpeter Blue Mitchell. Silver signed to Blue Note Records, and the label gave him free rein as a house pianist and arranger for nearly three decades. He created a sound that provided the blueprint for countless jazz quintets in the 1950s and ’60s: bluesy, soulful, funky.

I got the impression that sometimes some of the bebop players thought it beyond them to play funky, you know?” he said. “Just kind of take your shoes off and get down into the real nitty-gritty of the music and get guttural, sort of. Get basic, you know?”

The title of Silver’s memoir, Let’s Get to the Nitty Gritty, says it all. His style was jazz’s next big thing: It was called hard bop. Dan Morgenstern, director emeritus of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, says Silver had great melodies, sophisticated harmonies and rhythms you could dance to. “They were very catchy,” Morgenstern says. “There’s themes of Horace’s that stay in your ear. He just had a knack for that.” Horace Silver’s music was just as affecting in person. Morgenstern says he recalls hearing the pianist at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. “His hair would be flying,” Morgenstern says. “You know, his head was bobbing side to side and up and down, and he would be wringing wet when he came off that stage.” Drummer Roger Humphries drove Silver’s music into the mid-1960s. Humphries says he saw Silver not just as an inspiring pianist, but also as a mentor — “like a wonderful big brother.” “He treated me very well,” Humphries says. “He made me want to be in his band. He made me want to play for him.” Humphries backed Silver on the pianist’s most famous work. It’s the tune almost everyone knows: “Song for My Father” was written for the man who nurtured Silver’s career in the first place. “My dad said to me one time when I was a little boy, he said, ‘You know, I’m not a rich man, I’m a factory worker. But if you want to go to college, I’ll try my best to try to put you through college,’ ” Silver said. “I said, ‘No, I don’t want to go to college — I want to become a famous jazz musician. But whether I become a famous jazz musician or not, I just want to play music. If I play in just a local bar all my life — I just want to play music. That’s all I want to do.’ “

Horace Silver did become a famous jazz musician. And he got to play music for more than 60 years.