Everyone's Got One

The Grammy nominations have been announced, so it’s time for everyone to pull out their opinions and get loud. Can I have an ‘Amen brother!’? Let me show you mine . . .

I can’t comment on all the nominations because I have neither heard all the music nor kept track of all the genres. And I won’t argue that the Recording Academy can and should be a different institution than it is. Like the Motion Picture Academy, it is a mainstream, professional organization which responds, slowly but gradually, to changing ideas and techniques. It’s an Academy, after all. So, take it on its own terms.

On its own terms, and selecting specific categories, the results can be a little surprising, if not puzzling. Herb Alpert is still making records? The Rock category contains Dylan, John Fogerty, Springsteen, Neil Young . . and Prince? The Grammies are like most other awards, they are biased towards established figures, who seemingly get nominated merely for being established. That’s the only explanation I can think of for David Byrne and Brian Eno’s new record, which is truly bad, being on this list. Beyond the snark, there’s some real criticisms:

Of the Best Contemporary Jazz Album list, there’s really only one jazz album on here, Stefon Harris’ Urbanus. I don’t think it’s anywhere near the top of releases this year, which included albums from Robert Glasper, Chris Potter, Paul Motion, Frank Carlberg, Fly, Vijay Iyer and Steve Lehman. The other records on here belong in the Pop Instrumental category, or World Music for the Zawinul set. But if Mike Stern counts as jazz, where is Wayne Krantz’s amazing new disc?

If the Academy tends to award established artist, then it’s time for Kurt Elling to get his. Since his debut record he has been the finest and arguably the most musically ambitious jazz singer among living musicians, and has also been one of the finest contemporary jazz musicians. His new record is one of his best, and even if it doesn’t have the adventurousness of his previous works the Academy won’t have to surprise themselves.

There’s already been blog and twitter comments on the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album list, the gist being how can the Academy nominated John Hollenbeck’s Eternal Interlude and not Darcy James Argue’s Infernal Machines. It’s a fair question with, I think, a lousy answer; the Academy either has only so much guts and taste for one progressive big band, or else they simply ignore records without distribution and/or downloads. In fact, I know they ignore downloads, which I’ll get to next, and as for distribution, New Amsterdam release are now available through Naxos, so DJA gets another more than deserved chance next year. But really, the incredible blandness of three of the choices on the list compared to the vibrant, accomplished Infernal Machines is massively underwhelming.

American Roots is an interesting category, containing Bob Dylan ( . . . okay . . . ), Levon Helm (huh?), Lucinda Williams (what?), and Wilco (Oh noes!). Jordi Savall put out a set of great music which comes as part of a beautiful, hard-bound book, and he’s nowhere to be found in the Best Package category. The Tompkins Square records package of historical gospel is missing from the list, and it’s arguably the greatest music I’ve heard all year.

The real hole is that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, on this list that is available to listeners only as a download, this is all disc based. This leaves out a lot of deserving music and production, mostly in classical music. It’s the classical producers who have taken more imaginative and productive advantage of digital downloads than anyone else. The prime example of this goes back two years, when Gustavo Dudamel’s concert recording of the Bartok “Concerto for Orchestra” under the download-only DG Concerts imprint was ignored, even though this was seemingly the ideal combination of the world’s hottest conductor, a popular piece of music and the absolutely finest recording of the piece ever made. This year, the New York Philharmonic put together a download only package of all the Mahler symphonies under Loren Maazel, and while it’s musically uneven the recording quality is one of the most impressive feats of engineering I have ever heard. Avery Fisher Hall has lousy acoustics, and the mp3 files are transparent, rich, resonant and detailed. I do not know how they did it, but they deserve all the production awards. But the Academy members probably never heard this music. Nor did they hear the Arvo Part “Symphony No. 4“, since the only recording of it is a download.

While we will always dispute the choices, I think this latter point is objectively disappointing. If the Academy is to recognize merit in music making and music production, they should consider all music making, not just the kind that comes in a package. Music itself is immaterial, why should it be considered solely on its media?


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.