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.


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