What’s on Your Playlist: Maria Neckam

November 20, 2012

Singer and composer Maria Neckam’s unparalleled sound slips across genre lines and expectations, and her pure, fresh vocals have been acclaimed by critics from around the world.

After growing up in Vienna and studying in Amsterdam, Neckam moved to NYC to study and perform. She moves effortlessly from idiosyncratic jazz riffs to haunting pop hooks, blurring boundaries with skill, well-honed technique, and range.  She’s worked with a wide range of top musicians including Lewis Nash, Thomas Morgan, Dan Weiss, David Binney, Jeff Ballard, Jon Cowherd, Aaron Goldberg, Jonathan Kreisberg, Aaron Parks, Mark Guiliana, Mike Moreno, and Colin Stranahan.

Maria Neckam is earning acclaim for the wildly inventive, unapologetically beautiful music on her third album, Unison, released on Sunnyside in June 2012.

1. Court and Spark – Joni Mitchell

I’m a big fan of Joni Mitchell, and this is probably my favorite album of hers. It’s so rich in content, both musically and lyrically.  Nothing is predictable or generic, and even when things sound straightforward, they are actually not. (Try covering one of these songs!) The production and orchestration is beautiful, too.

I love surprises in music, and there are many on this album. At the same time it’s never heavy; it still has that making-me-feel-good effect that makes you want to sing along.

The lyrics are critical, honest, touching and witty – So are her vocal performance and the instrumental playing.   Little imperfections make it even more charming and heart-warming.  I love everything about it!

2. North and South – Luciana Souza

I got this album before I moved to New York and fell in love with it. Sometimes I can be very determined, and one of the things I knew I wanted was to study with Luciana Souza. Luckily that worked out when I transferred to Manhattan School of Music, and she was one of the best teachers I’ve had.  I love how she brings together her two cultural and musical backgrounds here – jazz and Brazilian music – in such an organic way and takes the music to a whole new place in her unique, unaffected, and delicate way. The arrangements and the playing are also beautiful, and her voice has a lot of soul.  Just as with Joni Mitchell’s album, I have come to particularly love the little imperfections on this record that are rare to find on today’s recordings, since they are mostly edited out.

3. Heartcore – Kurt Rosenwinkel

I used to be a bit of a Kurt Rosenwinkel stalker, going to all of his gigs in town. Every time I heard him play, I was transfixed.  His music felt like something from another planet, but at the same time incredibly familiar and personal.  It has always touched me in a very deep way.  I love the sound, the composition and the playing/singing on this album.  It has all the elements I love in his music, plus that personal feel you get when you record something yourself, in your living room. I think you can hear that this was not recorded in two days in some big, expensive studio, and that all musicians on the album are in it with their heart.  I find Kurt Rosenwinkel to be an extremely tasteful and sensitive artist, both as a composer and an improviser. His statements are always very clear, and he uses subtle details effectively. His music is exciting without having to be crazy all the time.

4. “Symphonies of Wind Instruments” – Stravinsky

Stravinsky is another one of my heroes. This piece is a bold, in-your-face statement that never pauses to reconsider.  It’s like a woman’s passionate, multifaceted attempt to convince her husband that she’s right.

I love how he juxtaposes pretty and nasty, power and grace.  I also enjoy how he develops motives in a very clear, almost building-block kind of way and how he has a few different themes that alternate. Still there is a consistent thread going through the whole composition.

5. Homogenic – Björk

Björk is one of those artists that you learn to love.  It took me a few attempts to get her, but when I did, she had me forever.  This one is still my favorite album because of its beautiful soundscape of strings and genius beats/programming.  I love the organic, deep sound of the album.  It’s very warm and soothing, the perfect backdrop for Björk’s often-intense singing.   “Jóga” and “Unravel” are songs of eternal beauty, so simple, honest, and unique.  I also think the string arrangements are amazing.  Every note has meaning, there is no randomness or carelessness to be found.

6. “String Quartet” – Maurice Ravel

Ravel and Debussy both have amazing string quartets that are often paired or analyzed together.  I personally like Ravel’s slightly more.  Maybe because it’s a bit more clear in the way he wrote the different movements and gave each string part equal importance.  Right from the beginning, he comes right to the point, then he moves the melody around between the instruments.  It feels very purposeful and balanced, but in a natural way, as if the quartet is but one evolving body, expanding and contracting.  It’s beautiful how each player gets to make a statement, then dives back into the whole.

7. I Do Not What What I Haven’t Got – Sinéad O’Connor

Sinéad O’Connor is a very courageous artist, which inspires me. When I got this album a long time ago I only bought it for its hit, the Prince cover.  Luckily I gave it a few more listens.  These are great songs, but not much about them is conventional.  Everything is weird and slightly rough: the instrumentation, the form, the lyrics, the dynamics, the singing.  That’s what makes it a special album, one you might sneer at, at first, but truly respect and love once you listen with an open mind.

8. Old World Underground – Metric

I discovered this album in one of the country’s last well-assorted CD stores, Twist and Shout in Denver. Whenever I’m in the city, I spend a few hours in this store digging and listening to staff recommendations.  I wish there were more stores like this left.  This album is powerful rock music with great, creative melodies, harmonies, lyrics, and Emily Hines’ lovely voice.  It makes me want to dance and cheers me up, and it is full of musical gems. You can hear that these people know what they are doing.

9. In Rainbows – Radiohead

This band obviously has more than one fantastic album.  I particularly like this one, because it’s both deep and light.  This music has their typical melancholy to it, but also a joyfulness that just makes you want to get up and get going.  It’s rhythmically complex and accessible (danceable) at the same time, and the melodies are catchy without getting annoying.  The combination of electronics and live instruments gives the album a rich sound quality that I like, because I only like synthetic when it still has that human feel to it.

10. “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” – Gustav Mahler (Kathleen Ferrier & Wiener Philharmoniker)

My composition teacher, Nils Vigeland, recommended this to me and said I’d die when I hear it. And really, this piece is so moving, it gets me every time I listen to it.  The lyrics are beautiful.  The title means something to the effect of, “I am lost to the world.”  It’s part of a five-song-cycle for voice and orchestra by Gustav Mahler, based on poems written by Friedrich Rückert.  The music is flawlessly beautiful.  It’s nothing crazy or complicated, but so pure, well orchestrated ,and perfectly reflecting the meaning of the words. The theme of the song is feeling disconnected from the world, and I can relate to that very well.

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