The Jazz Shmammys: the results are in.
Jazz and the Grammy Awards: It is a strange love-hate relationship. As jazz music represents a mere 2.5% of all record sales, it is kind of irrelevant what album wins “Best Jazz Album” in any given year. That is, unless it is a wacky year like 2007 when Herbie Hancock won the Best Album of the Year (not best Jazz Album – best Album, period, for his ‘River: The Joni Letters”), or this year, where in a strange alignment of the heavens (and the Grammy voters) Esperanza Spaulding, a jazz bassist and singer that has been releasing albums since Justin Bieber was 12 years old, won the Best New Artist category. Best artist? Most definitely. But New Artist? Ms. Spaulding’s first album came out 5 years ago. Does this mean that Heads Up, the label that released the last two albums by Ms. Spaulding, thought the first one was a throw-away and not worthy of consideration? Whatever, it was a welcome surprise that someone of such talent, and not high record sales, would win this award.
So for those interested, let’s take a musical journey down the jazz road and see what albums and songs won Grammys for 2010.
BEST CONTEMPORARY JAZZ ALBUM
We have to start our journey with a little analysis of this category. In this case, contemporary does not mean “living”, though it helps to be alive to get into this category. This used to be the “Smooth Jazz” category, consisting of easy listening, semi-improvisational instrumental music. Since the term “Smooth Jazz” has now been buried with the term “Disco”, the last few remaining “Smooth Jazz” albums now fall into the “Best Pop Instrumental Album” category.
Now the defining element of “Contemporary” jazz seems to be the use of electric instruments instead of acoustic ones. I guess Trombone Shorty and his album “Backatown” didn’t get the memo on that. But then he did not get the memo that he was doing a jazz album at all – this is a funky, rockin’ album that owes more to Kool and the Gang and The Meters then it does to Wayne Henderson and the Jazz Crusaders. If he had won, it would have kicked this category into the 21st century.
The other kinky album in this category is Joey DeFrancesco and his tribute to Michael Jackson, “Never Can Say Goodbye”. I love Joey, and have always been blown away by his incredible ability to swing at any speed, and kick the bass at the same time he is wailing on the B-3. But I was disappointed by this project. It is a lovely idea to take the Michael Jackson catalog and jazz it up, but in this case the arrangements just stay too close to the originals. You just don’t want to compete with Quincy Jones on these tunes – if you are going to do “Thriller” you really got to do a whole 180 degree turn on it and take it somewhere else, or it just comes off like a bad lounge band.
DeFrancesco is too talented to sound bad for long, and on the tunes that he moves away from the originals (like on “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “Billie Jean”) he creates some great music with his band. But as a whole, the album does not hold up.
The other three nominees in this category fit squarely into the “Jazz Fusion” camp (another discredited area of jazz). Sirius/XM had a jazz station called “Beyond Jazz” for quite a few years, which featured this kind of music, but they dropped it from their playlist a while ago, so honestly I don’t know quite where this music gets played anymore, outside of college dorm rooms. I am not saying its bad: I really enjoy John McLaughlin’s fusion-take on John Coltrane’s music from his “To The One” album, and wish it could have won. But the prize went instead to Stanley Clarke Band. It’s a good record, with another great star turn by the talented pianist, Hiromi. Personally, I get tired of guitar solos played on the bass, but that’s just me. Stanley, don’t lose Hiromi, she is the best thing to happen to you since George Duke…