Grammys 2020: jazz as you (mostly) expect it to sound

Grammy.jpgThe Grammies are rarely the most innovative of music awards. Often, they reflect an industry congratulating itself on reading the market right, or – particularly in relation to jazz – noticing artists that fans have respected for years. The 2020 nominations (awards will be announced on 26/27 January our time) reflect both these features. But here’s a quick round-up of the more interesting jazz nominations, with some links to give you a flavour of the music.

The five Best Jazz Instrumental Albums are from players who are definitely the usual suspects: Joey deFrancesco In the Key of the Universe, the Branford Marsalis Quartet The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul, Christian McBride’s New Jawn, Brad Mehldau Finding Gabriel and Joshua Redman. They’re all worthy nominees, and all accomplished albums – for my money, though, Redman’s Come What May is the most interesting release. The reedman has an instantly recognisable thoughtful, wistful voice. Reunited after 20 years with pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Gregory Hutchinson, you can hear both how much he’s grown, and how much he’s still his own distinctive man.

Melissa Aldana

Marsalis and McBride also feature in the Best Improvised Jazz Solo category, alongside Randy Brecker. But the two most interesting names in this category are guitarist Julian Lage and Chilean-born saxophonist Melissa Aldana from her album Visions, inspired by themes from the life of painter Frida Kahlo.

Anat Cohen

The more diverse Large Jazz Ensemble category presents outfits that most South Africans won’t previously have encountered: Miyo Hazama, Mike Holober’s Gotham Jazz Orchestra, the Brian Lynch Big Band, and the crowd-funded Teraza Big Band. It’s the one we do know here, past Joy of Jazz visitor Anat Cohen with her Tentet , however, who produces the most intriguing music, on Triple Helix Cohen’s sound certainly pushes the Grammy’s conservative ‘jazz’ envelope, rich with ideas from contemporary concert music.

The Grammy selectors apparently believe that only women can sing. Nominees in the jazz vocal category are Sara Gazarek’s Thirsty Ghost, Jazzmeia Horn’s Love& Liberation, Catherine Russell’s Alone Together, Tierney Sutton’s bigband Screenplay , and Esperanza Spalding’s 12 Little Spells

Jazzmeia Horn A jazz listener time-travelling from the past would find nothing perturbing about the formats of any of these albums – even, for once, Spalding’s. The musicianship is uniformly superb, and I’ve a weakness for Russell’s masterful command of a lyric, but there’s a shortage of risk-taking – the closest we get is in Horn’s socially aware lyrics.

ZenonAs is often the case, the Latin Jazz category contains many of the most intriguing sounds. David Sanchez’s Carib project blends Haitian sounds with Panama, and veteran Panamanian vocal maestro Ruben Blades, with Wynton Marsalis, presents a classical vision of the genre  (I’m betting he’ll win). But the two most intriguing listens are (of course) Chick Corea on Antidote with the Spanish Heart Band, and Puerto Rican alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon’s tribute to folk hero Ismael Rivera: Sonero Zenon’s inspired revisionings of traditional song viewed through what’s often a bebop lens evoke how South African jazz players sometimes treat our indigenous sounds: it’s inspired and inspiring.

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah: Ancestral Recall

There is, of course, no ‘African Jazz’ Grammy. (Many would consider the adjective superfluous, given the relationship of all jazz to African roots.) Perhaps that’s why trumpeter Christian Scott a Tunde Adjuah’s superb Ancestral Recall finds its nomination in the Best Contemporary Album category. Adjuah has often pointed out that just because his vision of ‘Stretch Music’ seeks to transcend the constraining baggage of the ‘jazz’ label, that doesn’t imply a rejection of the spirit or technique of jazz. The man’s from New Orleans, for heaven’s sake. But Ancestral Recall embodies a lot of what many of us would like to hear in a Grammy jazz winner: openness, freedom, a sackful of intelligent playing ideas, intricate conversations with rhythm and a searching exploration of Africa-in-America. Pitchfork invokes Bill Laswell in its review, but despite his brilliant production skills, Laswell’s excursions into African music sometimes sounded like the souvenirs of a day-tripper: decorations, not integral elements. Adjuah’s work (he now creates his own horns to express the textures he needs) never does.


The winners announced Jan 26 continued the leitmotif of predictability. All are great musicians; few even wrinkled the boundaries of how the Grammies have historically defined jazz. Esperanza Spalding won Best Jazz Vocal album; Randy Brecker took Best Jazz Solo; Brad Mehldau won Best Jazz Instrumental album; the Brian Lynch Big Band walked away with the large ensemble award and Chick Corea took Best Latin Jazz album. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah didn’t win his category.


Amapiano: people power plus WhatsApp breaking the legacy music value chain

A friend of mine – admittedly not a dance fan – was once invited to watch the video of Riverdance. After 20 minutes of Michael Flatley doing his interminable heel-toe-begorrah thing, she horrified her hosts by piping up “When does it actually start?”

Bandwagon-jumping – and will album covers ever stop using anonymous women as decoration?

Too much bandwagon-hopping amapiano music – currently hitting the airwaves in anticipation of the Desemba party season – sounds like that. It’s a backing track: a slice of rhythm waiting for a soloist to do something interesting over the top. Not all of it, however, as the links in Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi’s interesting analysis in New Frame make clear – we should not, by now, even need to argue that a really good DJ is as much of a creative improviser as any horn player. If you want to know how the best of the genre sounds, Mohlomi’s your man.

Where he’s dancing on shakier ground, however, is in his argument about what it needs right now, which his headline-writer summarised as “monetising in the marketplace.” (That headline – thank goodness – has now been changed. The drift of the story has not.)

That’s the last thing it needs. If it happens, amapiano as a fresh musical force will die. Rather, the future lies in the kind of grassroots anti-commercial infrastructures that musicians in other countries, such as (pre-Bolsonaro) Brazil, have built to break free of Big Music.

Broken value chain

We’ve known for 20+ years worldwide that digital has broken and upended the music industry value chain. It used to be that musicians bust their guts earning peanuts working crummy stages for half their lives to score a recording deal. No longer. Now, as increasingly anybody with a smart device can put sounds together, the ‘recording’ becomes a promo tactic to draw people to your shows. Live performance and all the things you can leverage off it (T-shirts; CDs and DVDs of that set, as it happened – because it’ll never be precisely the same again – more) are now the top prizes on the value-chain. There’s a library full of industry studies discussing that.

Big Music strikes back

That unsettled a lot of people – but it unsettled Big Music most of all. Ever since then, the legacy capitalist music companies have been brewing up tactics to restore their position as prime surplus-value extractors from working musicians. They have, to some extent, succeeded. The mission of A&R at the labels is now to seduce artists who have already built their own followings via social media – so they can skim a percentage off work they didn’t do, for as long as the artist stays in ‘fashion’. For many musicians, paying to keep an album on a streaming or digital sales platform costs more (in dollars) than the cents they receive from it. If musicians earned peanuts before, that’s diminished to pine nuts today. Pulverised.

What’s most exciting about amapiano is that it’s the first of our home-brewed, syncretic, groove-driven sounds for dancing to take really full advantage of the people’s internet – WhatsApp – for distribution.images.jpg

What was most depressing about Mohlomi’s article was the number of his music-maker sources clamouring to hand over the autonomy won from that in exchange for the “expertise” of the labels. Sure, Big Music has expertise – in making profits. Making interesting music comes way down the list of priorities, and spending money on an artist – once you’ve stopped being flavour of the month – even lower.

Collective people-power

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Baile funk in Recife, Brazil

But there is another way. It’s a way pioneered in Brazil about a decade ago, by people who didn’t aim to be commoditised “brands”, but rather to keep their low-income communities dancing, creating, thinking and eating. Nevertheless, it engendered a national, high-earning, off-axis circuit, and was one of the foundations of the Brazilian funk movement, which has today seen baile funk – a form analogous to our various incarnations of SA house and which started at favela (township) house and street parties (baile) – heading to be named a national cultural treasure. (At least, pre-Bolsonaro, because the music and even more its grassroots organisation pose implicit challenges to the current rightwing regime. Even before his ascension, conservative senators were calling for it to be banned.) The musicians did it not by entering “the marketplace”, but by coming together to start their own, autonomous, collective-based industry model. This article from Open Democracy describes the roots of the movement. This one talks organisational logistics

Kiss of death

Pop music is by its nature ephemeral. Nothing wrong with that – it’s the seed-bed for all kinds of edgy new ideas. Signing a hot trend to a major label, however, is the kiss of death. The trend becomes a brand: novelty frozen into provenly marketable formulae; risk-taking and experiment stifled. Remember Nkalakatha? Next thing you know, amapiano will start being danced to by bankers at Northcliffe braais, and discussed by middle-aged 702 presenters with cut-glass accents. Which latter…er… actually happened  a couple of weeks back.

Fortunately, grassroots musicians keep on inventing – so what’s next?

Why Sisonke Xonti’s Standard Bank Young Artist award matters

In terms of sound, music and hard work, there’s no doubt that Sisonke Xonti’s Standard Bank Young Artist 2020 award for jazz is more than richly deserved. Listen, for example, to this live set from the Downtown Jazz series   But it’s also a significant choice in terms of Xonti’s career trajectory and what it means for the Awards going forward.

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This year’s SBYA winners; Xonti second-left

For a long time, the Standard Bank Young Artist Awards have been playing catch-up: awarding ‘young’ artists who are already well advanced in their careers by the time they are noticed. Pianist Afrika Mikhize, for example, had already toured the world with Miriam Makeba more than once before his arrived in 2012. Last year’s winner, trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni, already had an armful of albums out as leader, with multiple different outfits.

But Xonti is, genuinely, a young artist in terms of where his career is. (That’s true of the rest of this year’s cohort of winners too.) He graduated only in 2012, and so far has just one album to his name as leader, the luminous, thoughtful, 2017 Iyonde ( ). That means he’s far better known by many jazz listeners as an ensemble player rather than a leader (and in a dazzlingly diverse range of contexts – but we’ll get to that later).

That bodes well for the future of the awards. The only possible criticism of Xonti’s win might be that the SB accolade has gone to a male player. Again. (Shockingly, we’ve seen only five female jazz winners in the entire history of the category.) One response is often that because of entrenched music industry sexism, there just aren’t that many women instrumentalists around yet with multiple albums and a substantial record as ensemble leaders. Xonti’s award, going exactly where it should – to a player beginning to establish an exciting career – should remind the judges that more women players are now reaching a similar career point. So it shouldn’t be too hard for the Awards to identify more women winners. Soon.

Meanwhile, let’s celebrate Xonti’s win. The Khayelisha-born tenor saxophonist started on recorder at 10, hankered after a trombone (but his school didn’t have any going spare) so moved on to clarinet and then sax by the time he was in his early teens. When his school band played before Nelson Mandela “and there was he, doing his Madiba Jive – that was the first time I really felt like an artist.”

He was scouted by the late Ezra Ngcukana for the Little Giants band, and then successfully auditioned for the Standard Bank Schools Big Band in Grahamstown.

But his passion for jazz, he has told SAFM “came and went.” At UCT in 2007, he enrolled for law, but had also begun composing. In 2008, he jammed at the Winston Mankunku Memorial, where he was heard by Jimmy Dludlu. An invitation to tour internationally with the guitarist followed. “It was important for me to travel,” he has commented. “It let me hear things I’d never heard – for example, in a jazz club in Kenya I’d hear those musicians bringing their traditional sounds to jazz.”playing.jpg

That exposure – in person, and through the crowded musical supermarket of the web – means that although Sisonke’s sound has been compared to that of the late Mankunku, it draws colours from a very different palette of influences. (Listen to his highly personal take on the classic Yakhal’Inkomo, for example ).

And Sisonke’s big, warm reed sound is everywhere. As well as Dludlu’s outfit he’s worked with pop outfit Freshlyground, with reggae artists Bunny Wailer and local outfit Azania, with South African masters such as Abdullah Ibrahim and the Hugh Masekela, as co-founder of experimental outfit Deluge with pianist Thandi Ntuli, in the Siya Makuzeni Sextet, and with all the Cape Town modern jazz usual suspects (of whom he is certainly one) in bands such as Shane Cooper’s Mabuta , and with Kyle Shepherd. That’s not a comprehensive list of credits by any means.

album.jpgWhen he graduated with a law degree in late 2012 (he also has a classical saxophone qualification) “I didn’t want to work in an office.” That’s the point at which jazz became not only a passion but a career choice. Carrying demanding law studies alongside sometimes punishing playing and touring schedules prepared him well for the hard slog of running a music career in the current impoverished work context of South African jazz. A combination of hard work and versatility, has supported Xonti in putting together a career that has given him both exposure and some really interesting playing opportunities. And all these fed into the compositions comprising Iyonde, which I reviewed when it appeared .

The award will likely offer the opportunity for a second album – something everybody who heard the first is looking forward to. What Xonti has inherited from the masters like Mankunku, Ngcukana, Duke Makasi and more – and carries forward in his own way – is a warmth, passion and attack in his sound. That’s something he deliberately cultivates. His compositions, he says, are “mostly inspired by emotions…I try and take [those feelings] out and onto the instrument.” In that context, real success lies not in the external accolades, welcome though they are, but in “achieving the sound that was in my head.”


It’s not just Xonti, though. Cape Town continues to host exciting players. My listen of the week this week is this incandescent musical conversation  between drummer (and prolific, engaged writer) Asher Gamedze and Chicago free-jazz clarinettist, vocalist and composer Angel Bat Dawid, recorded in the Mother City for Bat Dawid’s debut album, The Oracle,  making significant international waves right now. Check it out.