The 2015 Grammys Get Jazz Mostly Wrong, a Little Right

Grammy nominations in jazz are rarely adventurous and usually confusing. Yet this year's slate is intriguing.

Billy Childs

Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro

Label: Sony Masterworks
US Release Date: 2014-09-09
UK Release Date: 2014-09-09

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.

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