This year is a bit different. When two jazz categories from the Grammy Awards were eliminated in a top-down Awards-wide cutdown in April, a number of jazz musicians — notably, Latin jazz musicians, who lost the Best Latin Jazz Album category — publicly protested. Some have since filed suit.
Wednesday night’s nominations announcement reveals the consequences of the cutdown. There remains plenty of detached amusement to be had: Here are the 2012 jazz Grammy Award nominees, along with my picks and my predictions for what the Recording Academy will decide. (The full list is here.) But at the end, I offer a few more observations about what the elimination of categories may have wrought.
Best Improvised Jazz Solo
- “All Or Nothing At All,” Randy Brecker, soloist, From Randy Brecker with DR Big Band, The Jazz Ballad Song Book [Half Note]
- “You Are My Sunshine,” Ron Carter, soloist. From Donald Harrison, Ron Carter & Billy Cobham, This Is Jazz [Half Note]
- “500 Miles High,” Chick Corea, soloist. From Corea, Clarke & White, Forever [Concord Records]
- “Work,” Fred Hersch, soloist. From Fred Hersch, Alone At The Vanguard [Palmetto Records]
- “Sonnymoon For Two,” Sonny Rollins, soloist. From Sonny Rollins, Road Shows Vol. 2 [Doxy/Emarcy/Decca]
Pick: Fred Hersch on “Work.” The pianist’s improvisation on the Monk tune, taken from a solo performance at the Village Vanguard, dares to be different. It’s got this two-hand independence thing going on, as if it were some sort of improvised baroque fugue. Hersch shoots off in all sorts of different directions through what feels like the piano’s entire range, but he still implies this rock-solid swing undercurrent in perfect time. (You can hear it at the Palmetto Records website.) That aesthetic of swinging from another planet is sort of what Monk did, though this sounds nothing like Monk. I’d like a solo this creative to take home the prize.
Prediction: Chick Corea for “500 Miles High.” The Sonny Rollins solo is interrupted by his announcement, and then goes into the Ornette Coleman duet, which is the more fascinating part of the track anyway. The Ron Carter solo, a long embellishment of the melody, has tons of soul — but it’s a bass solo. (Sorry, bass players; just trying to predict the thoughts of a small group of people who aren’t me.) The Randy Brecker is a romp, and I’ve made my position known on the Fred Hersch, but Grammy voters love Chick Corea. He took home a Grammy seven times from 2000-2010. He’s overdue.
Best Jazz Vocal Album
- ‘Round Midnight, Karrin Allyson [Concord Jazz]
- The Mosaic Project, Terri Lyne Carrington & Various Artists [Concord Jazz]
- The Gate, Kurt Elling [Concord Jazz]
- American Road, Tierney Sutton [BFM Jazz]
- The Music Of Randy Newman, Roseanna Vitro [Motéma Music]
Pick: The Mosaic Project. I’m not always the biggest fan of the future-funk vibe on this record, where drummer Terri Lyne Carrington calls together an varying all-female cast. It is, however, the one which stands out the most from the rest, which — repertoire aside — are mostly well-mannered conventional jazz records. There’s nothing to be discounted about making a conventional jazz record, if it’s good. But wouldn’t it be great to see something laden with a sense of the contemporary, of African American pop from the last quarter century, of the idea-mashing experimentation common throughout music today: Wouldn’t that be a great winner?
Prediction: Kurt Elling. Now that he’s finally won a Grammy, after many years of being nominated, subsequent awards should follow. The man commissioned creative arrangements on a diverse set of material, wrote a few hyperliterate lyrics and cultivated truly virtuoso pipes. Personally, I don’t love Kurt Elling’s brand of artistry — but I do recognize it as artistry, and in that light, The Gate feels like a major statement.
Best Jazz Instrumental Album
- Bond: The Paris Sessions, Gerald Clayton [Emarcy/Decca]
- Forever, Corea, Clarke & White [Concord Records]
- Alone At The Vanguard, Fred Hersch [Palmetto Records]
- Bird Songs, Joe Lovano & Us Five [Blue Note]
- Road Shows Vol. 2, Sonny Rollins [Doxy/Emarcy/Decca]
- Timeline, Yellowjackets [Mack Avenue Records]
Pick: Gerald Clayton. The twenty-something pianist plays old-school standards and swings; his go-anywhere rhythmic flexibility feels distinctly of a new generation. He’s a subtle and deceptive stylist, who works in a lot of activity under a pretty legato melody. It’d be swell to see the Grammys recognize jazz talent from someone anywhere near his generation, for once. And as a kid who grew up around music — his dad and uncle are well-recognized jazz musicians — he actually stands a shot at being recognized by enough of the Recording Academy voters to one day take home the prize.
Prediction: He probably won’t this year. This one is likely going to Sonny Rollins, who turns out epic performances like Road Shows Vol. 2 with regularity. The Roy Haynes, Jim Hall and Ornette Coleman guest spots on this; the fact that he’s a living legend; the Beast Mode he summons: Those work pretty heavily in his favor. (This is assuming that Chick Corea wins elsewhere, and that the Esperanza Spalding as Best New Artist factor doesn’t elevate the Joe Lovano record to the top.)
Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album
- The Jazz Ballad Song Book, Randy Brecker With DR Big Band [Half Note].
- The Good Feeling, Christian McBride Big Band [Mack Avenue Records].
- 40 Acres And A Burro, Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra [Zoho].
- Legacy, Gerald Wilson Orchestra [Mack Avenue Records].
- Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook, Miguel Zenón [Marsalis Music].
Pick: Miguel Zenón. This is one of my very favorite records this year: It connects classic Latin boleros — a repertoire with a popular, communal heritage — to some rather astonishingly complex re-imagination in ways that never feel contrived. It is more “the Miguel Zenón quartet with winds” than a “Miguel Zenón large ensemble,” but it’s on a shortlist, and ought to be recognized somewhere.
Prediction: Gerald Wilson. All these are good records; I could see any of them winning. But when in doubt, pick the jazz giant who refined his own distinct ensemble sound, especially one who collaborates with his son and grandson.
What else? Some other observations about this year’s selections:
- The Yellowjackets, a fusion ensemble which would have likely been nominated in the now-defunct “Best Contemporary Jazz Album” category, has been added as a sixth contestant in “Best Instrumental Jazz Album”;
- Only two distinctly Latin Jazz artists nominated for any of the jazz categories after the removal of the “Best Latin Jazz Album” category, one of them curiously being Arturo O’Farrill, an outspoken critic of the removal of the Latin Jazz award;
- Jazz artists were inserted into categories like Best New Age Album (Pat Metheny, for his solo acoustic guitar album), Best Tropical Latin Album (Mongorama, a Latin jazz band led by Jose Rizó, is one of only three nominees) and Best Reggae Album (Monty Alexander, for the Harlem-Kingston Express recording blending jazz and reggae rhythm sections at Jazz at Lincoln Center);
- Jazz artists — mostly white male big band composers — dominate the Best Instrumental Arrangement and Best Instrumental Composition categories;
- All of three jazz artists under the age of 40 (Gerald Clayton, Christian McBride, Miguel Zenón) are nominated for anything.
Certainly, not all those things are directly attributable to category consolidation. But the cutbacks have certainly reduced the diversity of jazz aesthetics represented here. And that may be something worth being more than detached about.