2019 Grammys: Breaking Down the Jazz Category Nominees
With each passing year, the Grammy Awards veer closer to a more populist viewpoint with regards to the acts chosen for the coveted nominations in a myriad of categories. Yet as the expansions of country, pop, hip-hop, R&B and rock help keep the televised awards show in declining but still formidable ratings, the modest success comes at the expense of categories not deemed camera-friendly enough for the grand stage. And undoubtedly the biggest snub with regards to screen time is for jazz, which has been regaining an extensive amount of its popularity back in the wake of its always-evolving sonic rapport with hip-hop, R&B and electronic music over the course of the last 15 years.
"That record changed music, and we’re still seeing the effects of it," Kamasi Washington told Pitchfork in 2017 in reference to Kendrick Lamar's genre-blurring masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly. "It went beyond jazz; it meant that intellectually stimulating music doesn’t have to be underground. It can be mainstream."
This year, the appearance of Lamar as part of the multiply nominated soundtrack to Black Panther remains one of the anticipated highlights of Grammy night, while jazz is celebrated almost exclusively during the pre-broadcast portion of the evening.
Even so, the Recording Academy continues to recognize and champion jazz on a number of fronts across the Grammy ballot, where it is the tenth field on the big sheet. Perusing the nominees in each category, one cannot be but a bit disappointed in seeing the absence of such critically lauded acts of 2018 as Andrew Cyrille, Makaya McCraven, Sons of Kemet and the aforementioned Mr. Washington, whose second triple album opus Heaven & Earth is a snub almost as offensive as the time they picked Jethro Tull over Metallica for the best hard rock/heavy metal trophy 30 years ago.
Not to take away from the massively talented pool of artists on display across the jazz field this year, however. For serious fans of the format, it will certainly make for an interesting evening — even if you won't get to see a lick of it on CBS.
Here's a quick rundown of the hottest prospects in each category, including best contemporary instrumental album, which theoretically features recordings made almost entirely by jazz artists yet is given its own designated field. The 61st Annual Grammy Awards air on Feb. 10 live from the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Field 10 – Jazz
Category 31 – 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.)
• "Some Of That Sunshine"
Regina Carter, soloist
Track from: Some Of That Sunshine (Karrin Allyson)
• "Don't Fence Me In"
John Daversa, soloist
Track from: American Dreamers: Voices Of Hope, Music Of Freedom (John Daversa Big Band Featuring DACA Artists)
• "We See"
Fred Hersch, soloists
Brad Mehldau, soloist
Track from: Seymour Reads The Constitution! (Brad Mehldau Trio)
Miguel Zenón, soloist
Track from: Yo Soy La Tradición (Miguel Zenón Featuring Spektral Quartet)
This category essentially whittles down a clash between two modern masters of jazz piano in Fred Hersch and Brad Mehldau, both of whom are representing exceptional solos off their best albums in years, Live In Europe and Seymour Reads The Constitution!, respectively. For Hersch, it would mark his 14th nomination while Mehldau will be enjoying his ninth overall shot at a little golden gramophone. And when you take into consideration that neither piano man has won a statue yet, surely it's looking to be a piano duel for the ages.
Field 10 – Jazz
Category 32 – Best Jazz Vocal Album
(For albums containing at least 51% playing time of new vocal jazz recordings.)
• My Mood Is You
• The Questions
• The Subject Tonight Is Love
Kate McGarry With Keith Ganz & Gary Versace
• If You Really Want
Raul Midón With The Metropole Orkest Conducted By Vince Mendoza
• The Window
Cécile McLorin Salvant
Don't underestimate the potency of The Questions, Grammy-winning Chicago crooner Kurt Elling's Branford Marsalis-produced album of interpretations of deep favorites by Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and more. But it's gonna take more than a few cool covers to override the momentum of Cecile McLorin Salvant, whose brilliant duet set with pianist Sullivan Fortner is being hailed as her finest work yet, and a shoo-in for a third consecutive statue in this category. And with the quiet fire of her translation of the Great American Songbook on The Window, the competition better be shook.
Field 10 – Jazz
Category 33 – Best Jazz Instrumental Album
(For albums containing at least 51% playing time of new instrumental jazz recordings.)
• Diamond Cut
• Live In Europe
Fred Hersch Trio
• Seymour Reads The Constitution!
Brad Mehldau Trio
• Still Dreaming
Joshua Redman, Ron Miles, Scott Colley & Brian Blade
The Wayne Shorter Quartet
This is by far the most stacked category in the jazz department. And on any other day, there wouldn't be any argument against seeing onetime Beyonce saxophonist Tia Fuller taking home the gramophone for her excellent, spirited fifth LP Diamond Cut, especially when she blows pure lightning against the dream rhythm section of Dave Holland on bass and drummer Jack DeJohnette. But the peaks of several year-end lists in 2018 — including Billboard's — all point towards legendary reedist Wayne Shorter redefining the term he's most associated with, fusion, through an ingenious amalgamation of creative jazz and comic books as visionary as anything he's done with Miles, Joni or Jaco. And at 85, he's far from finished pushing things forward.
Field 10 – Jazz
Category 34 – Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album
(For albums containing at least 51% playing time of new ensemble jazz recordings.)
• All About That Basie
The Count Basie Orchestra Directed By Scotty Barnhart
• American Dreamers: Voices Of Hope, Music Of Freedom
John Daversa Big Band Featuring DACA Artists
Orrin Evans And The Captain Black Big Band
• All Can Work
John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble
• Barefoot Dances And Other Visions
Jim McNeely & The Frankfurt Radio Big Band
Kamasi Washington's Heaven & Earth should've made the cut for this category, no questions asked. Not that it would've stood a chance against the strongest contender in this pack — if based only on sentiment. However, that's what makes American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom such a sharp competitor. Not only is this a killer big band album, it's a beautiful story of this union between modern trumpet giant John Daversa and a choir of talented young men and women, all of whom happen to be protected under DACA, a program in constant danger of being cut by the Trump Administration. Songs like James Brown's "Living in America," Cole Porter's "Don't Fence Me In," Led Zeppelin's "The Immigrant Song" and Sondheim's "America" from West Side Story are transformed into call-to-action hymns for the very souls singing them.
Field 10 – Jazz
Category 35 – Best Latin Jazz Album
(For vocal or instrumental albums containing at least 51% playing time of newly recorded material. The intent of this category is to recognize recordings that represent the blending of jazz with Latin, Iberian-American, Brazilian, and Argentinian tango music.)
• Heart Of Brazil
• Back To The Sunset
Dafnis Prieto Big Band
• West Side Story Reimagined
Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band
• Yo Soy La Tradición
Miguel Zenón Featuring Spektral Quartet
All five of these nominees have proven their championship level abilities in shaping the vibrancy of Latin jazz in the 21st century. But it's hard to see anyone in this group beat out alto sax player Miguel Zenón's elegant chamber jazz tribute to his beloved, embattled Puerto Rico. Accompanied by Chicago's Spektral Quartet, Zenón turns a decade's worth of research on his homeland's rich traditions in music, religion and folklore into a singular sound that pushes the definition of Latin jazz unlike any record in recent memory.
Field 3 – Contemporary Instrumental Music
Category 11 – Best Contemporary Instrumental Album
(For albums containing approximately 51% or more playing time of instrumental material. For albums containing at least 51% playing time of new recordings.)
• The Emancipation Procrastination
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah
• Steve Gadd Band
Steve Gadd Band
• Modern Lore
• Laid Black
• Protocol 4
Since its implementation in 2001, the contemporary instrumental category has largely consisted of jazz fusion acts. Why the Recording Academy won't just make it part of the jazz field is a real wonder. But it does provide an opportunity for New Orleans trumpet great Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah to finally land the Grammy that's eluded him since his last nomination in 2006 for best contemporary jazz album (a category that doesn't even exist anymore). The third and final chapter of his Centennial Trilogy, The Emancipation Procrastination, is peak Christian as he and his group meld the worlds of Miles Davis' In A Silent Way and Mezzanine by Massive Attack, highlighted by an otherworldly take on Radiohead's "Videotape" from the band's consistently misunderstood masterpiece In Rainbows. This music transcends category.