In case you haven’t watched CBS in weeks and missed the Super Bowl (with its numerous CBS-centered reminders), the 55th Annual GRAMMY® Awards show takes place on Sunday. The annual extravaganza will run the better part of three-and-a-half hours, filled with a lot of sound and fury – and maybe even some small significance here and there.
The GRAMMY telecast long ago morphed into a top-rated variety show, focused on rock, pop, country, and hip-hop, interrupted by a few of the winners in those categories receiving their statuettes in front of the cameras. Unlike most other awards shows, the GRAMMY telecast downplays the actual awards in favor of the full-blown, often unique performances that have made it the nation’s pre-eminent music telecast.
You’ll notice no mention of jazz in that list, but don’t feel alone: the majority of genres get little love on the program. Only a handful of award presentations make it onto the broadcast, focused almost entirely on the best-selling artists. They draw the ratings, which draws the big contract from CBS, and that in turn funds all the other valuable initiatives undertaken by The Recording Academy (GRAMMY’s parent) throughout the year.
And I have no problem with that arrangement – especially since jazz fans can get their fix a couple hours early.
The jazz GRAMMYs, like most of the other 81 awards, will be announced hours before the CBS logo gives way to the opening act (7 PM Chicago time). You can watch these presentations – which include the jazz, blues, world music, and classical awards – during the “pre-telecast” Awards Show, streamed live on the GRAMMY site Sunday afternoon from 4 till 6:30.
If you have somehow forgotten my track record on predicting the jazz winners, you’re not alone: I had to look it up myself, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that I correctly picked two of the four. I also weighed in on a couple other categories involving a heavy jazz presence among the nominees – Best Composition and Best Arrangement – and got one of those two right, thus keeping me at 50-50 on the night.
Bolstered by that performance, I again enter the fray – right after the usual disclaimer to the effect that your Chicago Jazz Music Examiner is a voting member and former national officer of The Recording Academy, as well as a proud member of the organization’s Chicago chapter. (I don’t believe that should affect the validity or logic of my statements here, but if you think it does, so be it.)
- Best Improvised Jazz Solo
Welcome to the exception to the rule – in this case, the Chick Corea Rule, which suggests that almost every time the puckishly ageless pianist receives a nomination in the jazz categories, he’ll add another GRAMMY to his collection, which currently stands at 18. (This is a correlative to the Pat Metheny Effect, which holds that anytime Metheny receives a nomination in any category – including rock and new age – he’ll win.)
This year, however, Corea has two albums in contention (each in two categories): “Further Explorations,” a trio album honoring pianist Bill Evans, and the duo date “Hot House,” the latest of seven albums documenting his 40-year collaboration with vibist Gary Burton. They’re both excellent discs: “Hot House” made my year’s-best list, and “Further Explorations” was close behind. But the presence of two Corea discs will split the vote, allowing a third party to slip in – in this case, the son of storied jazz demigod John Coltrane. I found Ravi’s album “Spirit Fiction” generally underwhelming, but this solo is among the real high points, and a worthy contender on its own. Still, I think it’s the Coltrane name that will allow this entry to sprint past the dueling Coreas.
- Best Jazz Vocal Album
In picking Elling’s ode to New York’s nexus of pop songwriters of the 1960s, I offer one more disclaimer: I wrote the liner notes to his disc. (If it wins, though, my contribution to the album would receive no recognition, so I think my hands are pretty clean here.)
“1619 Broadway” represents a smart and even important concept: the further updating of The Great American Songbook, to include more recent music in the grand tradition of songcraft that flourished in the 1930s and 40s. The arrangements range from unadorned to subtly subversive to flamboyantly original. And Elling’s vocal instrument just gets better with age and experience: for sheer technique and musicianship, he paces almost every other singer, male or female, on the scene. (That includes the other nominees in this year’s especially strong field, topped by an inspiring comeback from 72-year-old Al Jarreau, who recorded only nine months after canceling a European tour due to cardiac arrhythmia.)
Spalding, on the other hand, is a gifted but still novice vocalist. Like Joni Mitchell, she writes tunes that specifically fit her range and phrasing, and she sounds great on those: her voice and her material are inextricably linked. And “Radio Music Society” is vividly content-rich in her widely ranging compositions, several of which stay in the ear for days after you’ve heard them. Elling is the better singer, of course, but on its own terms, Spalding’s album is just as good as “1619 Broadway.”
Oh, and one other thing – she’s Esperanza Spalding, fercrissake: jazz’s “it” girl; the first jazz musician to ever win “Best New Artist” (2010). Game, set, match.
- Best Jazz Instrumental Album
Who should win: Chick Corea and Gary Burton, “Hot House” (Concord)
Who will win: Pat Metheny Unity Band (Nonesuch)
The confluence of previously mentioned phenomena – the Pat Metheny Effect, plus this year’s exception to the Chick Corea Rule – make this one pretty easy to peg. If Corea hadn’t released two albums within this GRAMMY eligibility period (Oct. 1, 2011 through Sept. 30, 2012), it would have made for a titanic match of irresistible force vs. immovable object. But he did, and that will probably split the vote, and Metheny will gallop on in.
Not there’s anything wrong with that. Employing a horn for the first time in nearly 20 years – Chris Potter, the outstanding saxophonist of his generation – Metheny gave us a refulgent powerhouse of an album, busting with intensity. I prefer the more measured program on “Hot House”: thrilling in its virtuosity, its collection of jazz standards also pinpointed aspects of both Corea’s and Burton’s personalities – the pianist’s unique harmonies, the vibist’s eddying melodies – without compromising the songs’ original essence. But I won’t feel cheated when Metheny takes home his 20th little Gramophone, for an album as deserving as any of his previous winners.
- Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album
Who should win: Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project, “Centennial – Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans” (ArtistShare)
Who will win: Ryan Truesdell (ditto)
Newcomer Ryan Truesdell only needs to beat out two competitors this year: because the number of eligible albums totaled less than The Recording Academy’s cutoff of 40 entries, the Large Ensemble slate has three nominees instead of the usual five. The Academy instituted this approach in an attempt to equalize the value of a GRAMMY nomination. (If only 25 or 30 albums are under consideration, selecting five means that every submission in that category has a 15 to 20 percent chance of receiving a nomination. The Academy felt that this cheapens the honor – a position I agree with, by the way.)
Truesdell still has formidable competition: the latest (and best yet) big-band disc from Bob Mintzer, and a particularly lively and varied disc from trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, a tribute to his role model Dizzy Gillespie. But Truesdell, who conducted “Centennial,” also has an edge: all the arrangements on this disc came from the pen of Gil Evans, widely considered the most innovative arranger after Duke Ellington, and a justifiably hallowed member of the jazz pantheon. An apprentice of modern big-band doyenne Maria Schneider, Truesdell found the charts, then used much of Schneider’s band to meticulously realize these previously unrecorded works. The album, released in the centennial year of Evans’s birth, got so much attention – in mainstream media as well as music periodicals – I don’t see how it can lose.
Coming next: Who will win the resuscitated Latin Jazz GRAMMY, plus assorted other categories where jazz musicians may well score