Thursday, December 3, 2009

2010 Grammy Jazz Nominations or: Dang, It's Been a While Since I've Written Anything Here

I was reminded last night by none other than my loving mother that I hadn't posted anything on the AccuBlog in an embarrassingly long time. Combine those pangs of guilt with the NARAS' unveiling of the nominations for the 2010 Grammy Awards, and here I am writing on Ye Olde AccuBlog. Fun fact: last year's take on the 2009 Grammy Nominations constituted the 4th post ever on the AccuBlog. Now wasn't that fact fun?

Each year there is plenty of griping among music fans about the awards: the voters are out of touch, the winners don't reflect artistic merit and innovation, results are influenced by money and marketing, etc. I, for one, take part in this griping as much as the next guy. Most of the nominations are for the biggest, most lucrative pop stars in the world, not necessarily for the "best" or "most accomplished" musicians. I don't know a whole lot about today's pop and rock scene myself, but I'm pretty sure that any song off of Dirty Projectors' Bitte Orca is ten times more worthy of an award than any of the five Record of the Year nominees.

BUT: I'm not in any place to pass judgment on the non-jazz nominees, because, for better or for worse, I've mostly listened to jazz this year. So let's do as I do far too often in casual conversation and change the subject to JAZZ!

My personal list surely would look different from that of the Grammy folks, but that's a given. Under-the-radar and/or way-out-left-field artists simply won't be in the running, and that's just the way it goes. Much of the music that was nominated was worthy, however, and none of it is blatantly commercial (Michael Buble and Chris Botti are relegated to other categories).

The consensus among jazz fans seems to be that the Grammy folks made some solid choices this year. Super-blogger Peter Hum posted his opinions on the jazz nominations at some point Wednesday night, and JazzTimes has a bit of insight, too. NPR's Blog Supreme posted an interesting piece about jazz musicians whose work is represented in nominations for non-jazz categories.

So, does anything else need to be said about the nominations? Not really. But that's the point of having a blog, right? Nobody's making you write (except maybe my mom, a little bit), you just do it because you have something to say and an open forum in which to say it. So, behold: the list of jazz nominees with my opinions inserted into the mix. My favorites in each category are in bold.

Category 44
Best Contemporary Jazz Album
(For albums containing 51% or more playing time of INSTRUMENTAL tracks.)

Stefon Harris & Blackout
[Concord Jazz]

Sounding Point
Julian Lage

At World's Edge
Philippe Saisse
[E1 Music]

Big Neighborhood
Mike Stern
[Heads Up International]

Joe Zawinul & The Zawinul Syndicate
[Heads Up International]

My take: I'm assuming "Contemporary Jazz" implies some sort of jazz/funk influence. In that case, Stefon Harris' Urbanus is the undisputed champ of this category. His longstanding ensemble, Blackout, is a heaven-sent mixture of sophisticated post-bop and hard-grooving hip-hop. The CD is great, but, as I've witnessed on 3 separate occasions over the last 4 years, the band is just SICK in live performance. SICK. So I'm going to let that skew my judgment.

Oh dang, you know what else skewed my judgment? I haven't heard three of the other nominated CDs. Whoops. I'm pretty sure I'd still think Stefon should win, though. The other one I have heard, Sounding Point by wunderkind-turned-genuinely-talented-mature-musician Julian Lage, is also worthy of recognition. I do, however, find it a little bit strange to lump Lage in with the more funky, electric sounds of the other "Contemporary Jazz" artists. His disc is often pensive and hushed. The percussion is limited mostly to delicate djembe playing (no drum set), and many of songs are for acoustic stringed instruments only. Not exactly the funky fusion of Zawinul or Stern.

Category 45
Best Jazz Vocal Album
(For albums containing 51% or more playing time of VOCAL tracks.)

No Regrets
Randy Crawford (& Joe Sample)
[PRA Records]

Dedicated To You: Kurt Elling Sings The Music Of Coltrane And Hartman
Kurt Elling
[Concord Jazz]

So In Love
Roberta Gambarini
[Groovin' High/Emarcy]

Luciana Souza

Tierney Sutton (Band)
[Telarc Jazz]

My take: I've actually listened to all but one of the vocal nominees (Sutton never made it to my desk), and my vote for the win would go to Kurt Elling. I really enjoyed Souza's tranquil Tide and Gambarini's tastefully traditional So In Love, but I've long held an affinity for Elling's aesthetic, and my fondness remained when he produced the live tribute album Dedicated to You (a big departure from his sprawling, imaginative studio efforts like The Messenger and Man in the Air).

There's just something about the guy's voice that says "No one has ever possessed an instrument like mine, and no one else ever will." Plus, the arrangements for string quartet and the tight, swinging backing band are perfectly matched to the alternately exhilarating and reflective mood of the album. JazzTimes columnist Nate Chinen recently wrote that Elling is the "most influential jazz vocalist of our time," and got a bit of flack in the comment section for his claim. What do you think? Is Elling over-rated? It might be partly Chicago pride, but I think he's a remarkable vocalist whose music will stand the test of time.

Related: Elling's personal recollections of performing at President Obama's state dinner in honor of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Category 46
Best Improvised Jazz Solo
(For an instrumental jazz solo performance. Two equal performers on one recording may be eligible as one entry. If the soloist listed appears on a recording billed to another artist, the latter's name is in parenthesis for identification. Singles or Tracks only.)

Dancin' 4 Chicken
Terence Blanchard, soloist
Track from: Watts (Jeff "Tain" Watts)
[Dark Key Music]

All Of You
Gerald Clayton, soloist
Track from: Two-Shade

Ms. Garvey, Ms. Garvey
Roy Hargrove, soloist
Track from: Emergence
[Groovin' High/Emarcy]

On Green Dolphin Street
Martial Solal, soloist
Track from: Live At The Village Vanguard

Villa Palmeras
Miguel Zenón, soloist
Track from: Esta Plena
[Marsalis Music]

My take: This is a curious category. Thousands of jazz albums were released during the Grammys' window, with thousands more solos on those albums. How to single out the one "best" solo out of all of this musical material? I don't know. I'd really like to know what goes through a voter's mind when considering this category. Do they go for the solo with the most immediate emotional impact, or do they consider external factors like an artist's reputation or the overall quality of the album in question? If anybody knows, or is a voting member of the Academy, let me know.

I'm going with Miguel Zenon. Esta Plena is an ambitious album, a prodigious young musician's exploration of his Puerto Rican roots. Zenon's solo on "Villa Palmeras" is an expertly crafted statement, running the gamut from plain-spoken motifs to breakneck polyrhythmic runs. The solo also does that thing that every jazz combo director has told their students to do: it builds. Zenon interacts with the rhythm section with empathy, ramping up the intensity towards the end of the solo, with drummer Henry Cole following Zenon every step of the way.

As for the other nominees that I've heard, Blanchard's solo (on drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts' Watts album) takes second place. It's a freewheeling, open-ended showcase of the trumpeter's technical prowess, accompanied by the brawny freebop time-keeping of drummer Watts and bassist Christian McBride. As for the Hargrove solo, I don't think it deserves the nod. Hargrove is undoubtedly one of the best trumpet players in recent times, but this is nowhere near his best work. 52-seconds of predictable blues licks, on the most straight-ahead track on his most straight-ahead album in some time, it offers nothing new or notable. It's good, it's swinging, and it calls to mind past trumpet giants like Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard, but it's nothing to write home about.

Category 47
Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual or Group
(For albums containing 51% or more playing time of INSTRUMENTAL tracks.)

Quartet Live
Gary Burton, Pat Metheny, Steve Swallow & Antonio Sanchez
[Concord Jazz]

Brother To Brother
Clayton Brothers

Five Peace Band — Live
Chick Corea & John McLaughlin Five Peace Band
[Concord Records]

John Patitucci Trio
[Concord Jazz]

The Bright Mississippi
Allen Toussaint

My take: Yes! Finally a category where I'm really familiar with all of the nominees. I'm going with my gut on this one and rooting for Allen Toussaint's The Bright Mississippi. Wait, didn't I just chastise Roy Hargrove for being too traditional, and now I'm praising an album on which most of the songs were written over 80 years ago? Yup.

Just listen to it and you'll hear what I hear. I couldn't take this CD out of my player for weeks. Where much of the music I enjoy is food for the brain, this was good old home cooking for my soul. Warm and cozy, but also totally new and intriguing in a way. Toussaint and his all-star band (featuring heavyweights like Nicholas Payton, Don Byron and Marc Ribot), approach the ancient music of Toussant's native New Orleans with sincerity and heartfelt emotion. The alt-country rhythm section team of David Piltch and Jay Bellerose add some grease to the proceedings. Piltch's minimalist solo on the title track just might be my vote for best solo of the year, over Zenon.

As for the others: all strong efforts, with the Clayton Brothers and John Patitucci rising above the two all-star live albums, but nothing from this year stands out in my mind like The Bright Mississippi.

Category 48
Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album
(For large jazz ensembles, including big band sounds. Albums must contain 51% or more INSTRUMENTAL tracks.)

Bob Florence Limited Edition
[MAMA Records]

Eternal Interlude
John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble

Fun Time
Sammy Nestico And The SWR Big Band
[Hänssler Classic]

Book One
New Orleans Jazz Orchestra
[World Village]

Lab 2009
University Of North Texas One O'Clock Lab Band
[North Texas Jazz]

My take: Wow. I haven't heard any of these CDs. However, John Hollenbeck's Large Ensemble produced one of my favorite albums of the last few years with A Blessing, so I'd assume that I would end up voting for Hollenbeck's Eternal Interlude. But I can't say. I'd appreciate input from anyone who has heard any of the nominees.

Category 49
Best Latin Jazz Album
(Vocal or Instrumental.)

Things I Wanted To Do
Chembo Corniel
[Chemboro Records]

Geoffrey Keezer

Brazilliance X 4
Claudio Roditi
[Resonance Records]

Juntos Para Siempre
Bebo Valdés And Chucho Valdés
[Sony Music/Calle 54]

Esta Plena
Miguel Zenón
[Marsalis Music]

My take: I haven't heard the Valdes or Corniel records, but of the three with which I'm familiar, I was most taken with Keezer's Áurea. I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel a little bit weird about picking a white fellow from Wisconsin over natives of Brazil (Roditi) Puerto Rico (Zenon), but, just hear me out.

Áurea is Keezer's personal take on the music of Peru, and he staffs his band with both Peruvian musicians and fellow Americans. He fell in love with Peruvian music while playing at Festival Jazz Peru in Lima with the Maria Schneider Orchestra. (Side note: my college roommate at the time was a trombone sub in the orchestra at the festival, and has fond memories of hanging out with Schneider and Keezer).

Áurea is a wonderfully diverse album, ranging from the offbeat funk of "Una Bruja Buena" to the tender ballad singing of vocalist Sofia Rei Koutsovitis on "La Flor Azul." The common thread is lyricism -- every tune is singable, melodic, and just downright pretty, in the best possible way.

As I already mentioned, Esta Plena is also very worthy. The Roditi is a strong modern Brazilian jazz outing, but doesn't have the same ambition or sheer beauty of the Zenon and Keezer discs.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting Grammy blog. I can't say I agree with all of your picks, but some are dead on. For Best Jazz Vocal Album Luciana Souza's album "Tide" really brings a new, colorful sound to the genre. It's an album I can honestly say I liked from start to end.

    I do, however, completely agree with you on your Best Latin Jazz Album pick. Geoffrey Keezer, for a white boy from Wisconsan he nailed it! No doubt this guy is talented. Just an interesting little tid-bit that those of you who are unsure might want to know- according to Twitter Keezer's entire album Aurea is online streaming here -->