As per every year, the Grammy Awards, which more than two months after a pandemic-related postponement were presented yesterday in Las Vegas, are a mixed bag. It is tempting to think of these awards as the great equalizer, since there are awards presented to recordings of such a diverse range of music. There are prizes for everything from hip-hop and heavy metal to gospel, new age, Latin jazz, musical theater, global music (an equally meaningless term that now replaces “world music”) and contemporary classical music (an oxymoron that we’re unfortunately stuck with). But sadly, there is a clear pecking order to these accolades; some recordings have been deemed more important than others.
Of course, theoretically any album could win Album of the Year and any recording artist could win Best New Artist, which is how it should be. Back in 1963, The First Family, a spoken word comedy LP by JFK impersonator Vaughn Meader–who?–walked away with Album of the Year! In more recent times, with the rare exception of jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, who received the 2008 Album of the Year for a recording mostly of renditions of songs by Joni Mitchell, and Esperanza Spalding, a musician also primarily associated with jazz, fetching Best New Artist in 2011 (which shocked many viewers, most of all the hordes of fanatical “Beliebers”), only certain kinds of recording artists–inevitably those whose music is mainstream and commercial–typically receive one of the Grammy’s most visible accolades.
Even though a great deal of so-called “popular music” is worthy and deserving of praise, it is not the only music that is, but that’s how it usually goes. Thankfully, the 2022 Album of the Year was awarded to We Are, by the Juilliard-trained Jon Batiste, which is a remarkably fluid compendium of styles incorporating rap, R&B, jazz, and even New Orleans brass bands that is at times reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s evergreen polyglot masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life (which was awarded Best Album back in 1977). But don’t expect a specifically “contemporary classical” or “jazz”-oriented record to be designated as Album of the Year any time in the foreseeable future. Plus, to add insult to injury, for several years now, awards for categories deemed less consequential by the Recording Academy (including all those “classical” music awards) have no longer been doled out during the official televised ceremony, a tactic that the Academy Awards unfortunately emulated last month when it announced the award for composer of the best soundtrack off camera. (It would have been preferable to have seen this being announced live, even if it was for yet another award for Hans Zimmer.)
Still, there are many people to celebrate among the recipients of the 64th Annual Grammy Awards, and since several that we care about deeply were excluded from the TV show and, as a result, you might have missed them, we’re shining some light on them here.
The Grammy Award that is typically a headliner for NewMusicBox, that for Best Contemporary Classical Composition, this year did not disappoint as it was awarded to a composition by Caroline Shaw (who has previously been featured on these pages). Her winning work is a five-movement percussion quartet called Narrow Sea, which was recorded on Nonesuch in a performance by Sō Percussion who are also heroes in the new music community. (This recording also received a New Music USA Project Grant.) Of course, among the other nominees for that category this year are also folks we treasure: Andy Akiho (whom we’ve also featured in NewMusicBox), the late Louis Andriessen (who, in addition to being the most influential Dutch composer, was a beloved teacher of many Americans), and an album of works composed by prior New Music USA Project Grant recipient Clarice Assad, her father Sérgio Assad, and the four members of another maverick percussion quartet Third Coast Percussion (with whom we also spoke back in 2020).
We would have also been thrilled with a win by the remaining nominee, John Batiste, who to the chagrin of some “classical music purists” was under consideration for this award for a two-minute instrumental track from We Are called “Movement 11′.” It was exciting to see that it was nominated here, a step toward breaking down the obsessive categorization of music that winds up being so exclusionary, ironically mostly toward music that falls in categories that are so rigidly defined. The Recording Academy annually gives another award called Best Instrumental Composition, for which any music except that which is deemed “classical” seems to be eligible; this year it was awarded to the late Lyle Mays, a multi-Grammy-winning pianist and composer who had worked extensively with Pat Metheny. It’s interesting as well as encouraging that Batiste was nominated for the “classical” composition award rather than this one. But it might have been even more interesting and more encouraging if, say, Shaw or Akiho had been nominated for Best Instrumental Composition.
Another encouraging sign within the Classical Grammy Awards for several years now has been a preponderance of recordings devoted to new music among the nominees and this year was no exception. It was extremely gratifying to see Jennifer Koh be recognized with the Best Classical Instrumental Solo award for her performances of solo works that she commissioned from 20 different composers during the pandemic and has made available in performances online. Although I was disappointed that Christopher Cerrone‘s terrific album The Arching Path didn’t win Best Classical Compendium, awarding the prize to Women Warriors – The Voices of Change, a live to picture symphony orchestra soundtrack to a celebration of global social justice activists featuring arrangements of music by a group of Hollywood female composers and songwriters, was another notable genre bending moment. Plus the orchestrations were done by Catherine Joy, who is a grantee of New Music USA’s Reel Change Film Fund, a five-year grants and mentorship program for composers of diverse backgrounds who have been marginalized in film composition.
It was also nice to see the Metropolitan Opera receive the Best Opera Recording for its release of Akhnaten by Philip Glass, one of the few living composers whose works have been staged there and hopefully something that will encourage the Met to present works by more living composers. And although it is not the music of a living composer, giving Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra the Best Orchestral Performance Award for their Deutsche Grammophon CD devoted to two symphonies by Florence Price makes an important statement about the importance of this early 20th century African American female composer, the first black woman to have a composition of hers played by a major orchestra and whose output is finally getting recognition nearly 70 years after her death. For this same reason, though, it was disturbing that Yo Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, two undeniably significant musicians, received the Best Chamber Music Award for yet another recording of the Beethoven’s oeuvre for cello and piano when all the other nominated recordings were devoted to music by living composers. Maybe it’s the best recording eve made of these five sonatas and three sets of variations, but it has a lot of stiff historic competition whereas none of the music on any of the other nominated recordings in this category has ever been previously recorded.
As for jazz, the late Chick Corea received yet another posthumous Grammy for Best Improvised Jazz Solo, the second year in a row that he has gotten this accolade. While Chick Corea was unarguably one of the finest keyboard soloists, the other (still living) nominees–Jon Batiste (there he is again), Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Kenny Barron, and Terence Blanchard (another member of the exclusive club of living composers whose music has been presented by the Metropolitan Opera)–are equally worthy musicians. And so are countless others who were not even nominated for this category which this year, along with Best Jazz Instrumental Album (given to Skyline, a trio effort by Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette and Gonzalo Rubalcaba), seemed to be only eligible to male musicians. At least an album by 2015 Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition winner Jazzmeia Horn was among the nominees for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album, though it lost out to For Jimmy, Wes and Oliver, an album by the Christian McBride Big Band, and Brazilian pianist/composer Elaine Elias captured Best Latin Jazz Album award for Mirror, Mirror, an album of duets with (again) Chick Corea and Chucho Valdéz (who completed the remaining tracks after Corea died). All the more reason why there need to be initiatives like Next Jazz Legacy, a national apprenticeship program for women and non-binary improvisers in jazz that was launched earlier this year by New Music USA the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice.
The Grammys at least are aware that women are great jazz singers and this year’s award for Best Jazz Vocal Album was given to Songwrights Apothecary Lab, the eighth studio album by Esperanza Spalding, who plays bass and piano on this album in addition to singing. Again, though it’s wonderful to see Spalding repeatedly recognized for vital work (it’s her fifth Grammy), categorizing this music limits her identity and also pigeonholes this album (a collection of 12 pieces of music that Spalding calls “formwelas” rather than songs), ultimately diminishing the significance of her ongoing post-genre accomplishments.
Several other category-defying artists were also honored, albeit through awards in specific categories. Best Folk Album was awarded to They’re Calling Me Home, the latest recording by Rhiannon Giddens, who is equally versed in bluegrass, blues, R&B, gospel, and Celtic music, and co-composed an opera that will receive its world premiere in May at the Spoleto Festival. And Arooj Aftab, whose music is a fascinating amalgam of post-minimalist classical music, jazz, electronica, and traditional Sufi music, was awarded the amorphously worded Best Global Music Performance award for “Mohabbat,” a track from her New Amsterdam album Vulture Prince. (Note: Giddens serves on New Music USA’s Advisory Council while Aftab serves on the Program Council.) One final awardee also worth mentioning here is Béla Fleck who received an award for Best Bluegrass Album even though his stylistic proclivities are rarely straightjacketed into any single genre.
So a lot of recordings of great music did get recognized yesterday, but hopefully if more people hear them as a result of this attention they will realize that these recordings contain music that is so much more than the category names that have been placed on them in order to honor them.