With the end of one year and the start of another, we are driven to assess, rank, top-ten, compare, and because you can’t do the other things without doing this, categorize. Movies, plays, music, but everything else too: dunks, catches, news stories, all of it. Then, naturally, we put the results on TV.
Cinema has the Oscars, of course, but it’s such a huge industry that there are also the Golden Globes, the New York Film Critics, and just about every newspaper and website out there picking the best. If you don’t like one measure, there’s probably another you can tune into for some affirmation, verification, or maybe a tip on what to spend your next $15 on.
In music, we just have the Grammys and — let’s all say it together, now — they generally stink. They’re hopelessly out of touch, narrow, and sales-oriented. Except when they’re not. Like members of congress and lawyers, they’re easy to hate, unless they’re on your side.
For jazz, the Grammys are a complicated topic. There have been times when The Recording Academy (the official name of the organization that awards the Grammys, and did you know that Sheila E and Harvey Mason, Jr. are both trustees of the Academy?) has recognized jazz in important ways. A few years ago, Esperanza Spalding won “Best New Artist” over this list: Drake, Mumford and Sons, Florence and the Machine and… Justin Bieber. There’s no way of knowing what that meant, exactly, but it felt less like the victory of good music over Justin Bieber and more like recognition of excellent but accessible jazz in a field of excellent and accessible hip hop, roots music, and indie-pop. A few years earlier, in 2008, Herbie Hancock took home Album of the Year honors over Kanye West, Amy Winehouse, Vince Gill, and The Foo Fighters.
Flawed as they are, the Grammys don’t always get it wrong, and more importantly for folks who care about jazz, they still have a kind of meaning, even if we wish it weren’t so.
So, having already weighed in on 2014’s best jazz, let’s investigate how 2014’s jazz will be Grammy-remembered.
All Mixed Up: Jazz Singing That Isn’t… or Something
Every chance you have to ask “What is jazz, anyway?” should probably be avoided. Jazz musicians themselves can’t agree (or, more often, don’t care), and jazz fans have as many opinions as they have passions. The Academy has no idea either, as the names of the Grammy categories, and the sliced and diced nominations, demonstrate.
For example, the Grammys have a category called “Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album”, which is the home this year to artists such as Johnny Mathis, Barbra Streisand, and Barry Manilow. Makes sense as a way of allowing that kind of music to get some recognition while not competing with Katy Perry and Ariane Grande. But this year, the category might also be called “Best Jazz Album Recorded by a Pop Star … Maybe with the Help of a Jazz Singer”. Because there you have Annie Lennox and her Blue Note album Nostalgia as well as, natch, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga going Cheek to Cheek.
It’s not that this is the wrong category for those records, exactly, but Bennett and Gaga certainly spent every second of their endless media tour calling their music “jazz”, and Lennox’s effort takes on “The Nearness of You”, “God Bless the Child”, “Mood Indigo”, and “Strange Fruit” in nontraditional ways.
I haven’t written about Gaga as a jazz singer, but here goes: she’s fine — certainly better than much of the jazz singing that I heard in 2014. She’s bright-voiced and in tune, and her feel on the slower tunes like “But Beautiful” is great, with a nice sound, rich in tone and molding the melody with care. But her rhythmic feel makes clear that she hasn’t sung much jazz. Her approach is very Broadway, lacking the cool pliancy that Tony Bennett is so great at, right next to her on the record. I actually prefer the way she leans into the difficulty of “Lush Life” to the way she glitters up and makes square the up-tempo parts of “Cheek to Cheek”.
Weirder for me is the way Gaga — who grew up in Manhattan but has a telltale background playing lead roles in high school musicals — seems to affect various odd accents on some tunes, sounding kind of British at times, Betty Boopish at others. She makes her jazz singing into a kind of schtick. Is her record with Bennett jazz rather than “traditional pop”? When the strings sweep in, maybe it’s the latter. At other times, it’s hard to figure out what jazz could be if this ain’t it. Is it great jazz, Grammy-nominatable jazz? Gosh, no.
The Lennox record is more honest and more interesting. She’s not trying to fool us into thinking she’s a jazz singer who sounds different than the pop singer we already know. The take on “Mood Indigo” features electric guitar strumming without much jazz nuance. It tacks a straight twelve-bar form onto the Ellington tune, and that’s where it really sounds at home. Rather than faux-jazz, this seems more like rock-roots music that’s wearing a metaphoric jazz fedora for style.
Lennox’s voice is the same as it ever was, utterly not swinging, utterly not that of a jazz singer. Her “Summertime” is really cool, a great piano arrangement that has an ominous groove, but it’s not jazz-like, just like her voice. Is it “traditional pop”? It’s remarkably untraditional (other than the repertoire), and that’s why it’s good. Neither does it sit in the jazz tradition. It is sui generis, it kicks Barry Manilow’s ass by any measure, and it probably belongs in a Grammy category not yet invented.
When you slide over to the actual “Best Jazz Vocal Album” category, things are a little confusing there, too. Tierney Sutton, a terrific singer who pretty much lives in this category, is nominated for the delicate, spare, and accomplished Paris Sessions. Rene Marie gets a nod for her saucy and surprisingly wonderful Eartha Kitt tribute, I Wanna Be Evil. And Gretchen Parlato’s superb Live in NYC is here, showing a glimpse of how jazz singing is moving forward in 2014.
Dianne Reeves — another excellent “jazz” singer — is nominated for similar-isn collaboration with Robert Glasper (who has been a big influence on and collaborator with Parlato) as well as Esperanza Spalding, George Duke (RIP, and also Reeves’ cousin) and others. Beautiful Life slides into R&B territory pretty often. Then, there is pianist Billy Childs’ tribute to folk-pop legend Laura Nyro, a pu-pu platter of delight that is clearly modeled on Hancock’s Album of the Year Joni Mitchell record: ten cool and idiosyncratic songs from a golden age of pop-rock, with a different singer on every track. Is it jazz? That’s hard to say, but in a good way.
The Reeves record might not be jazz. It’s very much a Robert Glasper project that falls on the commercial R&B side of his divide: and, yes, he is again nominated for “Best R&B Album” with Black Radio 2, which predecessor won that category in 2013.
(Side note: the Grammys’ attempt to make sense of R&B is a hopeless muddle. It has separate categories for “Best R&B Performance” and “Best Traditional R&B Performance”, mirroring its pop vocal set-up. Glasper’s version of “Jesus Children” on Black Radio 2 in the traditional category, which seems odd given how much hip-hop feel there is in this track, though it’s a Stevie Wonder tune. For “albums”, however, there’s just one R&B category, but there’s a separate “Urban Contemporary Album” category, whatever that means, though it’s not rap or hip-hop, which has its own category. Huh.)
The Childs record is even harder to figure as “jazz”, even though Childs is a jazz pianist by background. His Nyro record is mainly a setting for: Alison Krauss, Ricki Lee Jones, Susan Tedeschi, Renee Fleming, Lisa Fisher, Shawn Colvin, and Ledisi, not one really a “jazz” singer. But what about the tracks featuring Esperanza Spalding, Becca Stevens, and Dianne Reeves, you say? Becca Stevens was actually featured on my favorite “jazz” record of the year by Ambrose Akinmusere, right? Does that make her a “jazz” singer? Does the killer gospel/jazz piano solo that Childs plays on Ledesi’s “Stone Soul Picnic” make it jazz? Does the fact that the song fades out over the solo invalidate that? Ahhhhhhh, who knows. Who cares, right?
In the end, the problem is that these categories make little sense because the music itself isn’t obedient; it doesn’t color within the lines or give even half a hoot about whether we call it “jazz” or “pop” or “R&B”, contemporary, traditional or otherwise. The Grammys knows this, too: “And When I Die” (Alison Krauss’s feature from the Billy Childs record) is also specifically nominated for “Best American Roots Performance”, another label the Academy just made up that means whatever you want it to mean.
Safe Choices: The Grammys’ Jazz Instrumental Categories
Jazz singers may slide across more boundaries than the average saxophone player; once you pick up an alto and start improvising, you are pretty likely playing jazz. And sure enough, the Grammys’ instrumental categories make a bit more sense.
First, the Academy has found a home of sorts for so-called “smooth jazz”: “Best Contemporary Instrumental Album” (formerly “Best Pop Instrumental Album” — the Grammys have created a series of what the Academy calls “fields” of music, and “contemporary” is a new one that, you know, kind of means nothing, but there you go). Awarded only since 2001, this award sweeps up nominees like Spyro Gyra, Kenny G, and Boney James (smoothies all) but also: George Winston (presumably a candidate for the “New Age” award), Brian Setzer (a retro-rocker), John Tesh (a purveyor of what used to be called “easy listening” music), Prince (yup, in 2004 for N.E.W.S.) and this year, Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer for their acoustic duets on Nonesuch, which have about as much similarity to smooth jazz as Lebron James has to an Easter Peep.
“Contemporary Instrumental” may be a catch-all, but it has the effect of making the “Jazz Instrumental” category makes some sense. This year’s nominees are all most certainly legitimate and fine jazz records: Landmarks (Blue Note) by Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band, Trilogy (Concord) by the Chick Corea Trio, Floating (Palmetto) by the Fred Hersch Trio, Enjoy the View (Blue Note) by Bobby Hutcherson, David Sanborn, and Joey DeFrancesco featuring Billy Hart, and All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller (Blue Note) by Jason Moran.
Two of those (Blade and Moran) were among my favorites. I didn’t love Corea’s latest, but it’s hard to entirely quibble with a band featuring Brian Blade and Christian McBride. Fred Hersch’s trio is always sharp. And when Bobby Hutcherson is nominated for a Grammy, the world is a better place. But it’s hard not to note that three of the five nominated recordings are from Blue Note, which is the Big Dog of jazz labels (owned by the Universal Music Group). Brian Blade is the drummer on two of the records. And Chick Corea and David Sanborn are maybe the Dustin Hoffman and George Clooney of jazz: known to all and very safe bets. Just one of these records comes from an independent label.
One of the charming quirks of the Grammys’ take on jazz is the category “Best Improvised Jazz Solo”. The award has included the word “improvised” only since 2009, whereas before that the category mirrored the “Best Classical Instrumental Performance” category. It seems almost quaint to imagine voters seriously thinking that they can vote on the “best” improvised solo, as if anyone, even the most ardent jazz critic or fan, has listened to them all and believes they can be evaluated one against another. It would be like the National Book Award people voting on “Best Sentence in a Book”.
Regardless, the results of the voting in the “jazz solo” category over the years tell a tale. From all the myriad soloists who have played on the gajillions of jazz records in recent years, here’s who’s won since 1972: Michael Brecker (six times), Oscar Peterson (four times), Chick Corea (four times), Gary Burton (three times), Wynton Marsalis (three times in a row), Herbie Hancock (three times), Wayne Shorter (three times), and multiple times for Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Terence Blanchard, Joe Henderson, you get the idea. Pretty much, Mr. Grammy only knows a few jazz musicians, and he just gives those guys awards over and over again.
This year, the nominated soloists are Corea (‘f course), Hersch, Kenny Barron, Joe Lovano, and Brad Mehldau: four pianists for some reason. It’s interesting to note that Mehldau is nominated for a Fender Rhodes electric piano solo on a track from his intriguing collaboration with drummer Mark Guiliana — an album that might have been nominated in the “Best Dance/Electronic Album” category, as it’s not exactly a jazz record. It’s also notable that, of all the many nominees in the various jazz categories, barely any are under 50. Mehldau, Blade, and DeFrancesco are in their 40s. Moran and Parlato are in their 30s. Pedrito Martinez, nominated in the Latin Jazz category, may be even younger.
But this is as much about safety as it is about age. In polls of jazz critics, the top albums of 2014 are usually coming from a different and more adventurous place in the scene. The NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll compiled by Francis Davis (full disclosure: I’m a voter there) gives its top spots to Steve Lehman’s edgy septet on Mise en Abime, Wadada Leo Smith’s Great Lakes Suites, Ambrose Akinmusere’s The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint, Sonny Rollins’ Road Shows, Vol. , Mark Turner’s Lathe of Heaven, and Marc Ribot’s Live at the Village Vanguard. Only two of those discs are on major labels, and only Rollins qualifies as part of the perennial jazz establishment.
More importantly, Grammy nominations are still hard to come by if your music flirts with a vocabulary of dissonance that, 50 years ago, was considered part of the jazz avant-garde. Lehman, Smith, Ribot, and the like can get irascible in their playing, and maybe that’s the thing.
Still, hope remains strong. Archie Shepp, a saxophonist who honks and screeches with the best, is nominated this year for “Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album” for Live: I Hear the Sound, a concert recording of his landmark Attica Blues. And Lehman at least appears on the Jason Moran record, as Moran himself is a remarkable and edgy player who just happened to make a very accessible Fats Waller tribute.
Perhaps it makes sense that part of what is new and exciting in jazz today is increasingly Grammy-friendly. The records by Parlato and Reeves both bear the stamp of Robert Glasper’s touch at incorporating modern groove music (that is, a kind of hip hop) into a jazz setting without dumbing down the proceedings. Moran is up to much of the same thing on All Rise. In this area, the Grammy folks may actually be a bit more tolerant and forward-looking than many jazz critics.
Francis Davis, in his commentary on the NPR jazz poll, gets it wrong when he writes that the production on All Rise is “hip-hop-cum-smooth-jazz” and that MeShell N’degeocello’s vocals “help do this [recording] in”. You can fault the Grammys for being too safe, sure, but if a record incorporates elements of pop music in any way, you can be sure that some older jazz critics will oppose it. In fact, jazz needs both more hip-hop and more dissonance, and both Steve Lehman and Jason Moran bring those elements. And there’s room for both.
When In Doubt, Make a Whitman’s Sampler
What we learned from Herbie Hancock’s Album of the Year win with The Joni Letters is, perhaps, that nothing succeeds quite like jazz that brings a little sophistication to pop music, and that incorporates a bevy of pop singers up front. Hancock had Tina Turner, Corrine Bailey Rae, Leonard Cohen, Norah Jones, and Joni herself fronting his band: pop shining up the jazz and jazz buffing the pop. That’s why we’re going to see the Billy Childs record win for jazz vocals this year — it’s very nearly the same record.
And in the world music category, I’d bet most of the farm that the victory will go to the Academy’s old friend Sergio Mendes (of Brazil ’66, ’77, etc) who also made a Whitman’s Sampler of a record in Magic, a record released on the mostly-jazz imprint Okeh. Featuring American stars like John Legend and Jangle Monae and Brazilian big names such as Milton Nascimento and Carlinhos Brown, Mendes’ latest gives Grammy voters the chance to endorse (or discover that they are familiar with) the work of any one of several big star. Like casting a movie with a series of big-name stars in supporting roles (have you seen Paul Thomas Anderson’s Pynchon adaptation, Inherent Vice yet? It likely contains one of your favorite actors!), making records this way makes Grammy-rific sense.
Familiarity comforts. It sells. But it’s not the future.
Sell More Records
Of course, the Grammys are not about the future. They are about the past year. They are supposed to be about the music that made the past year great. But in fact, what the Grammys do is impact future record sales and song downloads. A year ago, Grammy wins increased sales for Daft Punk (300 percent), Kacey Musgraves (177 percent), Lorde (86 percent), Imagine Dragons (65 percent), Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (62 percent), and Katy Perry (22 percent). So, when the 2015 Grammys are handed out on 8 February at the Staples Center in L.A., musicians will have crossed fingers, as will their hopeful promoters and managers. The jazz categories may not produce big surges, but in a corner of the music business where times are tough, every little boost counts.
Will any jazz musicians make it onto the telecast? Maybe that exposure means more than a win. In a typical year, the Academy sneaks in a big name, maybe in a tribute segment, maybe in one of those uncomfortable numbers where Sting and Herbie Hancock team up with The Foo Fighters to do a Burt Bacharach tune.
However it shakes out, it hard to imagine that the 2015 Grammys will significantly promote jazz. That work is being done by the art form itself in tiny steps: in the dazzling New York Winter Jazzfest that began on 8 January; in the continued refusal of the new generation of musicians to limit their music to what was prescribed in 1960, 1980, or 2000; and in the open-mindedness of fans will follow Jason Moran from Monk to MeShell N’degeocello or follow Gretchen Parlato from Robert Glasper to Wayne Shorter.
The music remains more expansive than the list of nominees that the Academy is comfortable with, and more elastic than the crazy Grammy categories themselves. Do you know how many Grammys Duke Ellington won? Neither do I.