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Grammys Tend to Focus on Heroics in Singling Out the Jazz Solo – The New York Times

Grammys Tend to Focus on Heroics in Singling Out the Jazz Solo – The New York Times


Grammys Tend to Focus on Heroics in Singling Out the Jazz Solo

FEB. 7, 2016
Joey Alexander, at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola last year. Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times 

A friend who edits a monthly jazz magazine tells me that nearly 5,000 new jazz records were sent in his direction last year. That’s not all of the new jazz albums made around the world in 2015, but a decent percentage of them.

So on those records might be 70,000 jazz solos — presuming, let’s say, an average of seven tracks per album (because jazz tracks can be long) and an average of two musical events per track that could be called solos (because jazz solos can be short or long or anything in between). Jazz solos can even be hard to discern as solos. In certain situations, and not infrequently, everyone in a jazz group is essentially soloing nearly all the time, which makes it hard, and possibly against the spirit of the thing, to draw a circle around a single solo.

There are five Grammy Awards in the category of jazz. One of them, best improvised jazz solo, is for improvising, and it rewards a single musician’s solo on a single track. (It’s been that way since 1991; previously it had honored a soloist’s performance across a whole album.) Philosophically, that seems good: As long as you’re going to reward a particular song, this award acknowledges that improvising is as important as composing to the identity of the song. But it’s a strange award, too. It asks more questions than it answers. Here’s the first one: 70,000 solos, in theory — where should the process of rewarding the best one start?


Christian McBride, in 2013 at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. Jacob Blickenstaff for The New York Times 

Practically, it starts with individual record labels submitting solos to a screening committee — sometimes more than one on a single album — with the approval of the artists, creating a long list. This year’s nominees for jazz solo of the year are: Joey Alexander, the unusually advanced 12-year-old pianist, on John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” from his album “My Favorite Things” (he recorded the solo when he was 11); Christian McBride, the bassist, with his trio, on a live version of the standard “Cherokee” — another trial for soloists — from his album “Live at the Village Vanguard”; John Scofield, the guitarist, on the song “Past Present,” from his album of the same name; the tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, on “Arbiters of Evolution,” by the Maria Schneider Orchestra; and the tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, playing with the Bad Plus, on “Friend or Foe,” from the album “The Bad Plus Joshua Redman.”

That’s a very good list, less reliant on old favorites than usual. (There is a small number of jazz musicians who have repeatedly been given jazz Grammys: Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Pat Metheny, Chucho Valdés. There’s your cynical answer to the question of what makes a solo worthy of a Grammy: if a musician familiar to a significant portion of Grammy voters has played it.) What do those five solos have in common, if anything? What seems to make one solo more Grammyish than another?

Mr. Alexander’s runs through a piece that is almost the exclusive property of young musicians with something to prove, because it is generally to be played fast, and serves up a new chord on every other beat. His entire 10-minute performance is basically a solo, with and without the rhythm section, which appears and disappears and appears again. Mr. McBride’s is a feat of fluency and technique, similarly expansive: improvisation on rapid chord changes at a fast tempo — around 180 beats per minute — running as a thread through much of the song, interrupted by short piano or drum solos.

Mr. Redman’s, at three and a half minutes, is an unrolling story that begins after the song’s marked-off halfway point. Mr. McCaslin’s five-minute solo achieves its full emotional roar inside an extraordinary Maria Schneider large-ensemble composition, moving through a series of vivid, changing backdrops. Mr. Scofield’s is masterfully played, full of original touch and vigor and roughness, on a clever but fairly straightforward, blues-related tune; it’s about a minute and a half, and the only one that doesn’t say, “Stand back: This is going to be extraordinary.”


John Scofield, in 2009 at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Dominic Favre/Keystone, via Associated Press 

What’s the pattern here? A Grammyish solo, by and large, is a framed event, a bravura spot-lit performance, a physical display, an act of heroism. There is a tradition of the heroic, thorough and teachable statement in jazz, including Coleman Hawkins’s “Body and Soul,” in 1939; Charlie Parker’s “Koko” (1945); Sonny Rollins’s “Blue 7” (1956); and Eric Dolphy’s solo on “Stormy Weather” with Charles Mingus’s group (1961). They all seem to carry the excited spirit of the earliest days of recording: Here’s an individual performance worth the medium.

But you could probably see 10 excellent jazz gigs in a row in New York this week without necessarily encountering a jazz solo that would be an obvious contender for a Grammy, and not feel disappointed. I hear a lot of bands these days — David Virelles’s, Aaron Goldberg’s, Kamasi Washington’s, Kris Davis’s, Jim Black’s — that use solos in either shorter or less monolithic ways, or at least not in ways that say this one’s the keeperThere might be many solos within a song, perhaps going on simultaneously, or one by one in a limited spot against one or more improvisers, or as way stations to something else rather than the final word, or they are to be understood as chunks in a continuing discourse. The heroic stand-alone solo is an interesting lens for how jazz is popularly understood, but not necessarily how it is practiced.

Jazz is about context and collaboration; it really is about bands. (For that reason, it’s a good thing that most of the solos in this year’s crop come from records made by working bands.) If the way you listen to jazz is to wait for the sustained passage of individual heroism, you may be missing a lot.

There is often, in jazz, a kind of philosophical insistence on inclusion and integration: a song is about A and B and C, rarely about just A. The solos that the Grammy voters are drawn to tend to be about A: They’re great-man theories. (Literally: The last time a woman won a jazz Grammy Award with “solo” in the name was Ella Fitzgerald in 1959, for “best jazz performance — soloist.”)

You do hear great improvising in jazz, all the time, but it’s generally part of a much greater whole. There could be a jazz Grammy for accompanying a solo, or for fluctuation in a rhythm section. There could even be one for the well-timed silence. I’m pretty sure I’m not kidding.



Jim Eigo Jazz Promo Services T: 845-986-1677 E-Mail: jim@jazzpromoservices.com



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