Several Jazz Surprises In The 2011 Grammy Award Nominations : A Blog Supreme The Grammy nomination announcement last night unveiled some unexpected nods in the jazz world, including bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding for Best New Artist. See a breakdown of all the jazz categories, complete with picks and predictions.
NPR logo Several Jazz Surprises In The 2011 Grammy Award Nominations

Several Jazz Surprises In The 2011 Grammy Award Nominations

Esperanza Spalding was not nominated in any jazz categories, but is one of five artists nominated for (overall) Best New Artist. Sandrine Lee hide caption

toggle caption
Sandrine Lee

Esperanza Spalding was not nominated in any jazz categories, but is one of five artists nominated for (overall) Best New Artist.

Sandrine Lee

The announcement of Grammy Award nominations last night featured some unexpected nods in the jazz world.

Chief among them was the inclusion of bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding among the five acts nominated for Best New Artist. She faces heavy competition -- namely teen hearthrob Justin Bieber, but also Drake, Florence & the Machine and Mumford & Sons -- and appears a dark horse candidate for an award which seems to congratulate commercial success. But her inclusion on this list of superstars is a remarkable indicator of how many people she's reached, especially for a musician rooted in jazz sensibilities and training.

Here's the full list of Grammy nominees. Among those in jazz categories (and other categories which feature jazz) there were many familiar names, but also a few surprises. Here are the jazz nominees, along with my picks and my predictions for what the Recording Academy will decide:

Best Contemporary Jazz Album

  • The Stanley Clarke Band, The Stanley Clarke Band (Heads Up International)
  • Never Can Say Goodbye, Joey DeFrancesco (HighNote Records)
  • Now Is The Time, Jeff Lorber Fusion (Heads Up International)
  • To The One, John McLaughlin (Abstract Logix)
  • Backatown, Trombone Shorty (Verve Forecast)

Pick: Trombone Shorty. Last year, this category featured a few stellar records with a grasp of subtlety -- Stefon Harris' and Julian Lage's albums, notably. It's not so much the case this year, all seemingly go-gonzo-or-go-home selections. In that vein, I wouldn't mind seeing Trombone Shorty take this one; I'm not in love with Backatown, but live, his band moves crowds with serious musicianship.

Prediction: Stanley Clarke. In spite of Joey DeFrancesco's Grammy-baiting Michael Jackson tribute, Jeff Lorber's enduring popularity in the smooth jazz world, and Shorty's Treme turns, it strikes me that the Academy will go with a someone who's been making "contemporary jazz" -- i.e. fusion, in its many incarnations -- for a long time. My gut tells me it's Clarke over McLaughlin.

Best Jazz Vocal Album

  • Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee, Dee Dee Bridgewater (Emarcy)
  • Freddy Cole Sings Mr. B, Freddy Cole (HighNote Records)
  • When Lights Are Low, Denise Donatelli (Savant Records)
  • Ages, Lorraine Feather (Jazzed Media)
  • Water, Gregory Porter (Motéma Music)

Pick: Dee Dee Bridgewater. She brings a certain raw energy and tremendous vocal flexibility to bear, and her band is rock solid on To Billie With Love. Granted, I haven't heard Freddy Cole's tribute to Billy Eckstine, and I enjoyed Cole's appearances on the Issac Delgado album L-O-V-E, so that might change.

Prediction: Dee Dee Bridgewater. She's easily one of the two big names here; her last two records were nominated but didn't win; she's saluting Billie Holiday, who everybody loves. The last time she took home a Grammy, it was for her Ella Fitzgerald tribute. She seems the favorite here.

Best Improvised Jazz Solo

  • "Solar," Alan Broadbent, from Live At Giannelli Square: Volume 1 (Chilly Bin Records)
  • "A Change Is Gonna Come," Herbie Hancock, from The Imagine Project (Hancock Records)
  • "Body And Soul," Keith Jarrett, Jasmine [Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden] (ECM)
  • "Lonely Woman," Hank Jones, Pleased To Meet You [Hank Jones and Oliver Jones] (Justin Time Records)
  • "Van Gogh," Wynton Marsalis, Portrait In Seven Shades [Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra] (Jazz At Lincoln Center)

Pick: Wynton Marsalis. Out of this, the silliest of categories (seriously, how many jazz solos were recorded this eligibility year?), the Academy has chosen work from five veterans, all fine musicians. Somewhat less arbitrarily, I'll nod to Wynton for his expressive, well-developed feature on Ted Nash's Portrait in Seven Shades suite.

Prediction: Hank Jones. Perhaps I'm underestimating the Grammys' tendency to award things to Herbie Hancock. But at least I'm not underestimating the Grammys' tendency to award things to dead people. And Hank's is a compact, deceptively simple solo; there's elegance there.

Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual or Group

  • Positootly!, John Beasley (Resonance Records)
  • The New Song And Dance, Clayton Brothers (ArtistShare)
  • Historicity, Vijay Iyer Trio (ACT Music + Vision)
  • Moody 4B, James Moody (IPO Recordings)
  • Providencia, Danilo Perez (Mack Avenue Records)

Pick: Vijay Iyer. I didn't think Historicity would even make it on this list; the Grammys are a somewhat conservative award when it comes to jazz, and I thought they might see this music as too "difficult." But it was among my favorite records of 2009, and I'm delighted to see it winning wider recognition. The same goes for Danilo Perez's 2010 offering, by the way.

Prediction: James Moody. And I can't hate on that, either; if it gives Moody an emotional boost in fighting a potentially terminal cancer, it'd be worth it.

Also, out of all the categories, this is the one which most suggests the Southern California bias of the Recording Academy, which is headquartered in Santa Monica. Three of the five bandleaders here live or have deep roots in the area; in general, many of the jazz nominees have put in lots of time out there, especially in the TV and film music industries. I suppose this is neither here nor there, but it just stands out in the jazz world, whose major hub is still New York City, for better or worse.

Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album

  • Infernal Machines, Darcy James Argue's Secret Society (New Amsterdam Records)
  • Autumn: In Moving Pictures Jazz-Chamber Music Vol. 2, Billy Childs Ensemble Featuring The Ying String Quartet (ArtistShare)
  • Pathways, Dave Holland Octet (Dare2 Records)
  • 54, Metropole Orkest, John Scofield & Vince Mendoza (Emarcy/Universal)
  • Mingus Big Band Live At Jazz Standard, Mingus Big Band (Jazz Workshop, Inc./Jazz Standard)

Pick: Darcy James Argue's Secret Society. You already know that I think Argue's music is worth paying attention to. Even stacked up against some formidable writers and top-tier soloists, Infernal Machines has a certain spark, a certain newness to it that I think gives it an leg up on other works here. Plus, if you've ever caught all 18 of these guys cramped into a club that seats maybe 70 people, would you ever have expected this?

Prediction: Mingus Big Band. Last year, this award went to the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, an excellent group; it seems like the Academy's collective thinking favored a grand twist on familiar sounds. If that holds, the Mingus band is the favorite.

Best Latin Jazz Album

  • Tango Grill, Pablo Aslan (Zoho)
  • Second Chance, Hector Martignon (Zoho)
  • Psychedelic Blues, Poncho Sanchez (Concord Picante)
  • Chucho's Steps, Chucho Valdés And The Afro-Cuban Messengers (Four Quarters Entertainment)
  • ¡Bien Bien!, Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet (Patois Records)

Pick: Chucho Valdes. A record can't fully capture the maelstrom that is his piano playing -- seriously, if you get the chance to ever see him, do it -- but it can at least feature lots of joyous noise around him. As a runner-up, Pablo Aslan is doing lots of interesting things with tango and jazz, but Chucho's record is a real statement from a grandmaster.

Prediction: Chucho Valdes. Other than Poncho Sanchez, he's the only one with any wide name recognition. He's well known to the Academy, with a number of Grammys already to his credit over decades. And he's taken up the gauntlet here.

Other Categories

Jazz and jazz-informed recordings reliably find a way into several other parts of the Grammy Award nominations. Here are a few of them:

  • Bobby McFerrin's Vocabularies, the vocalist's first record in eight years, and Matt Haimovitz's Meeting of the Spirits, which scores jazz tunes for multiple cellos, are both nominated in the Best Classical Crossover Album category.
  • Writer Ashley Kahn was nominated in Best Liner Notes for his work on the John Coltrane Side Steps box.
  • The Best Instrumental Arrangement and Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s) categories are littered with work done for jazz projects, including Vince Mendoza, Patrick Williams, Ted Nash, Frank Macchia, Herbie Hancock/Larry Klein and Geoffrey Keezer.
  • The Best Instrumental Composition category is essentially a jazz category. Patrick Williams, Gerald Clayton, Tim Hagans, Bill Cunliffe and Billy Childs were the five nominees, all for works involving jazz bands. Three of five of those projects were made through ArtistShare as well; overall, ArtistShare recordings had a good showing this year.

Finally, another observation: Did anybody else notice how few of the jazz nominees put out their albums on major record labels? I count five out of 30 albums released on labels affiliated with the four major companies; at least one of those, Herbie Hancock's The Imagine Project, was largely self-financed.

Granted, Concord Music Group has grown rather powerful -- it represents three of 30 records, and is Esperanza Spalding's parent label, for another -- and it's easier than ever to produce your own recordings. And five out of 30 is already an over-representation of major labels in jazz, proportional to the enormous flood of indie jazz releases every year.

But major labels usually dominate at the Grammys -- with their enormous press engines and ability to attract top-tier talent, they usually over-represent even more. It seems to hint at just how little the majors have invested in jazz in 2010, and how much jazz musicians and institutions are funding their own projects these days.