Tag: musical genres

Hearing Beyond The Categories of the 64th Annual Grammy Awards

Grammy Award

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.


Culture Counter Culture, Pt. 3

It was through reading a comment from two weeks ago that I learned that the voice I had heard over the car radio singing “Sidewalk Talk” back in 1984 didn’t belong to the song’s composer, Madonna. Rather, it was Catharine Buchanan, an excellent vocalist who didn’t realize commercial success beyond that song (released under the name of its producer, Jellybean, a.k.a. John Benitez) reaching #1 on the U. S. Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart in 1985. (The song ranked in the U. K. as well.) The heartfelt comment described Buchanan’s excitement over showing off her New York City apartment music studio “to a composer,” how the experience inspired the commenter to use sarongs to protect his electronic equipment from dust, and how nearly completely she slipped into obscurity until her untimely death in 2001. The comment’s author thought that there was only one other extant commercially released recording of Buchanan, a European techno-dance piece, “Love Is,” which was recorded in 1988.

I spent fruitless hours searching for more audio clips of Ms. Buchanan’s work—or even biographical information about her—but finally decided to put the project on the back burner for the time being. So I was thrilled to read in the comments from last week’s post that two more examples of her work with bassist-composer Steven Severin can be heard on SoundCloud. Both tracks were recorded in 1990 and released in England; their “small studio” sound and non-mainstream American textures (which can be over-saturated with low-frequency information) juxtapose with Buchanan’s decidedly non-British voice.

While this juxtaposition might appeal to an armchair musicologist like me, it might have also hurt the chances of the collaborative effort’s reaching a wider audience. This is because a musical reflexivity exists between genre and locale, a fact supported by concepts like: “Chicago” versus [Mississippi] “Delta” blues or “West Coast” versus “East Coast” jazz. In this paradigm, musicians can act as a nexus of many stylistic affectations that might be realized in a unique artistic voice that the listener might find exotic. British Invaders of the 1960s, like Van Morrison and John Lennon began their careers playing in British skiffle bands, which were part of a revival of certain pre-swing American musical idioms, like jug-band and blues shouting, that had become, or were becoming, obsolete. The African-American exoticness of these idioms certainly appealed to British musicians and their audiences and the non-American sound of the British Invasion singers certainly lent an exoticness that audiences in the States could embrace. While it makes sense to think that Europe could be a fertile ground for Catharine Buchanan to transplant her career, perceptive ears might notice that her voice sounds like the one singing “Sidewalk Talk” (since it was the voice singing “Sidewalk Talk”) and be fooled into thinking of her as a Madonna impersonator. And, while the arrangements could be remixed for distribution in America, her non-British diction would not be exotic to U.S. listeners. Ironically, the success of Buchanan’s contribution to American pop culture doomed her to obscurity.

The reflexivity of genre and locale is important to the concept of a sonic “lineage” spanning the history of a given discipline. In the field of jazz trumpet playing, one such timeline suggests that New Orleans-based Louis Armstrong was followed by Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Chet Baker, Maynard Ferguson, and, finally, Freddie Hubbard. But this narrative is far from definitive. Most serious histories include the name Buddy Bolden as the first jazz trumpeter (and even the first jazz musician) and follow a more focused genealogy that would disinclude Ferguson (and probably Baker) while including Lee Morgan, Thad Jones, Woody Shaw, and culminate with Wynton Marsalis or Terrance Blanchard. My own list would place Ferguson in a line with Raphael Mendez, Harry James, Doc Severinson, and Arturo Sandoval, include anomalies like Jabbo Smith, Don Cherry, Wadada Leo Smith, Jon Hassell, and Herb Robertson. Modern mainstreamers, neo-jazzists, and hyper-modernists like Kenny Wheeler, Jon Faddis, Warren Vache, Tom Harrell, Dave Douglas, Roy Hargrove, Steve Bernstein, Dave Ballou, James Zollar, Randy Brecker, Ralph Alessi, Lex Samu, Wynton Marsalis, and Jack Walrath would also loom large in my ever-sprawling and amoeba-like conglomeration of cornetists and trumpeters.

It’s hardly a surprise that the short list of trumpet players previously mentioned ends with Freddie Hubbard. His sound was unmistakable and widely imitated as was his technical facility. He mastered several techniques that became his trademarks: a yodeling effect of shifting across adjacent harmonics, rapid-fire false fingerings on a single tone, and a percussive style of scalar playing. As a young man he practiced diligently and studied at the Jordan Conservatory of Music in Indianapolis with the principle trumpet for that city’s symphony, Max Woodbury. Hubbard believed that developing one’s technical abilities to their fullest was paramount to creating music:

Some musicians don’t seem to care about technique, but to me, there’s more in playing trumpet than just working to your own capacity. I want to keep developing, and I want to be able to play the whole range of the horn any time I feel like it. When a certain idea occurs to me, I want to be able to execute it. That’s what I’ve been working on ever since I started playing. It’s no use having a whole bunch of ideas floating around in your mind and then not being able to execute them. – Hubbard as quoted in Leonard Feather’s liner notes for Breaking Point (Blue Note BN 4172, 1964)

Freddie Hubbard 1976

Freddie Hubbard in 1976. Photo by Tom Marcello, from the Wikimedia Commons

Hubbard moved to New York City in 1958 and began working with many of that city’s elite jazz musicians. In December of that year he recorded two songs at a recording session with saxophonist John Coltrane that were included on the albums The Believer and Stardust. In 1960 Hubbard began recording for Blue Note Records, an association that would last for seven years and produce 39 albums (eight under his own name). It was also in that year that, along with trumpeter Don Cherry, bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy, bassists Scott La Faro and Charlie Haden, and drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins, Hubbard played on saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s controversial landmark record, Free Jazz. Although there is no definitive discography dedicated to Freddie Hubbard, the Tom Lord Jazz Discography lists over 115 separate titles under Hubbard’s name. The problem with this number is that it might include reissues and doesn’t include sessions, like Free Jazz, that he did as a sideman. (If one takes his work for Blue Note as a reference, there’s a likelihood that Hubbard appeared on almost 600 record dates.)

In 1961 Hubbard took over the highly coveted trumpet chair in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, a post previously held by Lee Morgan. His writing was eclectic and he penned several tunes. “Up Jumped Spring,” “Bird-like,” and “The Intrepid Fox” became jazz standards. “Red Clay,” and “Sky Dive,” and First Light” became classics of what is now called “smooth” jazz. Hubbard was a stellar trumpeter who could command top dollar at the height of his career. But the music of his crossover success was a far cry from his early years playing with Eric Dolphy and his involvement on Ascension, the landmark experimental album by John Coltrane, or some of the more avant garde projects he participated in, like this collaboration with Turkish-American composer (and Atlantic Records producer) İlhan Mimaroğlu. Ironically, Hubbard’s success offered him lifestyle options that proved to be counterproductive to making good music. Instead of keeping up a regimen of practice and study that would sustain the virtuosic technique he had developed, he chose to partake in chemical substances that would enable him to push through fatigue and pain. Sadly, his career outlived his lip, and in his last years he wasn’t able to deliver the stunning performances that were the foundation of his stardom. Still, Hubbard’s contribution to American music is undeniable and years after his death his trumpet playing still stands as a benchmark for jazz trumpet players to aim for.

In keeping with the theme of genre-location reflexivity, Hubbard’s hometown, Indianapolis, Indiana, has provided plenty of names to the canon of jazz history. Trombonist-composer J. J. Johnson, guitarist extraordinaire Wes Montgomery (as well as his brothers, pianist-vibraphonist Buddy and bassist Monk), and trombonist-composer Slide Hampton are just a few of the Indianapolis artists that are or were at one time household names among the jazz community. A few of the lesser known Indianapolis musicians who, because of their contributions as performers and educators, are also vital to the development and propagation of jazz include: Leroy Vinnegar and Larry Ridley (bass), Melvin Rhine (organ), John Bunch and Al Planck (piano), Jimmy Coe (saxophone-arranger), and Steve Allee (piano-composer). And there also exists an elite core of trumpeters from Indianapolis whose contributions to jazz are, while not as obvious as Hubbard’s, profound and well worth a cursory examination.

Next week we’ll take a look at another.

Clique Escape

We all know that American music is comprised of a multitude of genres, subgenres, cliques, factions and styles. The swath of American music is so wide that many of its most broad-minded proponents from one camp unabashedly and sincerely argue that some of the other widely listened to varieties of American music aren’t really music at all. This was the case for jazz in the first two decades of the 20th century, when many respected members of “proper” society considered the nascent genre as so much caterwauling of licentious verbiage over primitive drumbeats and rudimentary chord progressions. Now it is the official musical art of America, a “national treasure.” As we near the 100th anniversary of the first recording of “jass” music, we should pay at least some cursory attention to what jazz is.

Jazz is a music that emerged from the ghettos of New Orleans. While it may have originated and possibly have been simultaneously performed elsewhere, jazz was first identified as a music played by New Orleans musicians. The musicians who played it by the time it was first recorded were Americans: African American, Native American, Italian American, German American, Jewish American, and Mexican American. All were involved, but by far the best jazz players were Creole Americans from New Orleans. By the third decade of the 20th century jazz was firmly entrenched in almost every city in America. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Kansas City were centers where the music was being played. While jazz began as a highly competitive field of music, it also acted as a unifying force among African Americans and working-class youth and was associated with the Socialist Party of America during the 1930s and 40s, largely through the efforts of John Hammond. Since then jazz has been used to promote America’s military and capitalist ventures during both World Wars and the messages of the Civil Rights, Black Nationalist, Native American, and anti-war movements as well.

Since 1917, the recorded music industry has identified, promoted, and sold the work of select “stars” that have set standards for performance and overall style. Despite the competitive aspects of jazz, there has always been a jazz community which attempts to bridge socio-economic differences that are part of America’s culture. It can be argued that jazz is little more than that; an attempt to bridge socio-economic divisions. Probably the most obvious example of this is the jam session; loosely organized events where jazz musicians listen to and play with each other. Musical development is explained and explored, new artists are presented to established artists by sponsoring mentors, and discussions (sometimes rather heated ones) about the state of the art abound. For young musicians, the jam session is traditionally where lasting relationships and career directions are first made.

The way jazz was originally taught was through mentoring and independent group study. There were no institutions that taught jazz as a curricular topic until the 1950s, although certain pedagogues, such as Lennie Tristano, would teach large enough numbers of private students to qualify as alumni of an informal “school.” Because improvisation is a salient feature of jazz, a wide range of highly personal approaches have always been at work. Even when imitating the “look-and-feel” of a popular record “star” (i.e. Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis), an artist can usually be identified by a well-versed listener. Since the 1950s a jazz academy has emerged. Its various institutions compete among each other for affluent or grant-savvy individuals to earn bachelors, masters, and even doctoral degrees in jazz performance, composition, theory, and history. Because of jazz’s legacy of connectedness to socio-economic trends, the fields of jazz studies can overlap into other fields (American studies, Afro-American studies, sociology, film studies, dance, ethnomusicology, etc.). Now the jazz academy competes with the jazz community as the arbiter of what and who will be identified as the best examples of what jazz, America’s original musical art form, is. In many ways, this appropriation of the jazz legacy by its academic proponents has had an unsettling effect among the larger jazz community. Many traditionally-schooled artists find themselves left out as more and more teaching jobs require academic credentials that weren’t needed 25 years ago. Some identify a new style of “academic” jazz they consider lacking in emotional content and feel the necessity to delve deeper into a personal expression that disregards much of the overall texture of the greater community, which is the sonic base for the academy.

Through it all, the recorded music industry is feeling a pinch. Artists identified with jazz have largely lost their pop star potential (even though bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding—amid some controversy—took the Grammy for best new artist of the year and artists like Sting and Harry Connick, Jr. began their careers playing jazz). When Maria Schneider took the Best Large Ensemble Album award in 2005, a potential death-knell for the industry was rung as the album, Concert in the Garden was only available for purchase on the internet and through the collective, ArtistShare, that she helped to spearhead. Now we see the “official” categories that the recorded music industry considers to be jazz whittled down to four (Best Improvised Jazz Solo, Best Jazz Vocal Album, Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album). That this year’s Best Jazz Vocal Album went to Terri Lyne Carrington , a drummer who included several vocalists on her album, The Mosaic Project, is a new point of concern for the jazz community as well. Many jazz artists feel like the only road to hoe is the one that leads to recording projects and venues that cater to more pop-oriented music and audiences that don’t know from jazz or music in general.

Many of the venues that are dedicated to presenting jazz have to charge admission fees that are out of the range of most jazz musicians’ budgets. This has led to a socio-economic rift in the jazz community that mirrors the one of American society in general and forces many artists to rethink their relationship with jazz. This isn’t particularly new to the jazz community (or the music world as a whole, for that matter); the history of jazz is rife with artists who prefer to not be called jazz musicians (Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Charles Mingus, for example), claiming that the label is too limiting. A current example of how this plays out is Nicholas Payton’s recent announcement that he no longer plays jazz, but instead Black American Music, while Wynton Marsalis has no problem with being associated with jazz. (Another facet of Marsalis’s relationship to jazz is denunciation of hip-hop music and culture.) While either or both of these excellent trumpeters may have forgotten the inclusivity of jazz’s historical legacy, it is clear that competition is still a driving force among many of jazz’s greatest artists.

(To be continued.)