Ben Ratliff made an interesting observation to begin his piece in today’s New York Times on last night’s Grammy Awards.
Grammy voters want popular music to have credibility, breadth and a kind of moral weight. But they are also, and always have been, tired of new complications. It’s not just that they are behind the curve; they are starting to bet that things really were better in the old days. Simple preference has turned into style. They are perforce becoming antiquarians.
It’s not clear where jazz sits within this Grammy time warp, or if it even has a comfortable place at all. I suppose jazz means antiquarian artifacts to most Grammy watchers. For years now, the jazz Grammys have aligned so little with either critics’ picks or popular taste that they amount to something of a curiosity—landing as often as not on worthy music, but reflective of little other than the forces of influence within and without the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
Speaking of which, The Clare Fischer Latin Jazz Big Band’s win for Best Latin Jazz Album (for its “¡Ritmo!”) was notable just for its having happened. Two years ago, when NARAS eliminated 31 categories in a consolidation meant to ensure “that the Grammy remains a rare and distinct honor,” according Neil Portnow, the organization’s president, one of the categories wiped away was Latin Jazz. (“I can feel it in my heart,” said nine-time Grammy winner pianist Eddie Palmieri, at the time. “It’s like a Grammy scar.”) Consistent protests led to the reinstatement of the category. So even though my favorite Latin-jazz albums of this year failed even to make it as nominees, and from the list assembled I’d have gone with Bobby Sanabria’s “Multiverse,” just by giving this one out the Grammys got it right.
At this year’s Grammys, there was no jazz bombshell, as when Herbie Hancock’s “River: The Joni Letters” took Album of the Year, in 2008, or when Esperanza Spalding earned Best New Artist in 2011, competing against the likes of Justin Bieber and Mumford & Sons (the latter, big winners at this year’s awards).
Yet pianist Robert Glasper’s Grammy for Best R&B Album, for his “Black Radio,” has to count as big one, beating back the likes of R. Kelly, and changing the game a bit for what arists and music labels can shoot for by challenging what we mean by things like “R&B” and, well, “black radio.”
Spalding’s continued career ascent made Grammy news once more. She took home two awards this year too, representing her “Radio Music Society” album: one for Best Jazz Vocal Album and the other, shared with Thara Memory, for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s), for “City Of Roses.” That last one strikes a nice note for jazz educators everywhere. It was through Memory, a trumpeter, and his essential role in Portland, Oregon’s American Music Program that Spalding first learned “the discipline that comes with loving to learn music,” she once told me.
Another arranger, Gil Evans, got a nice posthumous nod for Best Instrumental Arrangement to “How About You,” via Ryan Truesdell’s notable “Centennial” album.
I’m not sure I think of Dr. John’s “Locked Down” as a blues album exactly. Then again, anything Dr. John plays or sings qualifies in my book as Grammyfied bluesology or bluesified Grammyology. Or something worthy of an award of some kind. So let’s all celebrate that one.
It was pleasing to see two fine elder statesmen, vibraphonist Gary Burton and pianist Chick Corea, cop two Grammys for their collaboration, “Hot House.” One went to Corea for his composition, “Mozart Goes Dancing,” the title of which is worth hearing someone announce from a podium. The other honored the title track, Best Improvised Jazz Solo.Never mind that, from the nominees listed, I’d have selected saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, for his “Cross Roads.” But more to the point:
Can we all now agree that this is the silliest of all jazz categories, and should be the first one cut should NARAS again go on a purifying purge?