It’s been almost a week since NARAS, or The Recording Academy, announced the winners of the Grammy Awards for 2012. That the 23-year-old Ms. Adele Laurie Blue Adkins of London, England, would walk away with six awards: Record, Album, and Song of the Year; Best Pop Solo Performance and Pop Vocal Album; as well as Best Short Form Music Video was no surprise. Mainstream media news had been “predicting” (as if newspersons have no inside track on a major media event like the Grammy Awards) that she would be taking away the largest amount of statuary in her purse. I figure that the Best Pop Instrumental award going to the 67-year-old Booker T. Jones (Booker T. and the MGs) and the Best Pop Duo/Group award going to 85-year-old Tony Bennett with the late Amy Winehouse is an indication of the kind of balance such Spring/Winter polarities represent to the American Culture Machine. That both of the female artists mentioned hail from England, while not pertinent in any musical sense, piqued my interest, too. The next biggest sweep was pulled off by the Foo Fighters (Best Long Form Video, Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance and Best Rock Performance, Song and Album), an “alternative” group (according to Wikipedia) founded and led by David Grohl of the iconic grunge band, Nirvana. The Best Alternative Music Album award went to Bon Iver, a folk band (as per Wiki). The Foo Fighters weren’t nominated for an alternative music award. The next biggest take-home tally went to Kayne West with four: Best Rap Album, Performance, Song, and Sung/Collaboration. To be clear, he shared the spotlight on the last three of these awards with: Jay Z; Rihanna, Kid Cudi and Fergie; and Jeff Bhashker, Stacy Ferguson, Malik Jones and Warren Trotter, respectively.
Now that NARAS only recognizes 78 categories worth bestowing the coveted Grammy Award on (down from 109), I’d like to look at some of the remaining 63. Besides Tony Bennett receiving another award, Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album (his fifth in that category to go with his six Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance awards, a Best Solo Vocal Performance (Male), a Record of the Year, Album of the Year, and a Lifetime Achievement Award—16 in all, when you count this year’s pop-duo award), several other artists received two golden gramophones. Someone I’d never heard of, Skrillex, was awarded a Grammy for Best Dance Recording and Best Dance/Electronica Album. I went online and learned the work he was recognized for forward and backward, but I’m not sure I’m “down with it” yet. It’s full of heavily processed samples that I really want to analyze. Since I don’t dance very much anymore, I really try to listen as deeply as possible to a piece until I’m sure I have an understanding of it. Taylor Swift also got two: Best Country Song and Solo Performance and Barton Hollow took the Best Country Duo/Group Performance and Best Folk Album (folk is the alternative country?).
I was totally “forgetted up” by Cee Lo Green’s Best Traditional R&B Performance, as well as Best R&B Song Awards. As much as he’s a great singer, even in R&B, traditional doesn’t really do him justice and I thought that Rapheal Saadiq’s “Good Man” and Marsha Ambrosius’s “Far Away” really should have been the takers. But their messages, over-representation of black men in prison and anti-gay violence, were possibly too gritty for the Academy this year. In fact, all the choices for R&B didn’t make much sense to me. While Corinne Bailey Rae can carry a tune, her breathy and somewhat head-voicey delivery is reminiscent of Nora Jones and seems to totally miss the chest-voiced tabernacle technique associated with R&B. I thought Kelly Price’s “Not My Daddy” was a better model, but it’s important to note that these awards are voted for by the rank and file of NARAS and their criteria for picking awardees are not mine. Besides, I’m no expert on R&B, although I grew up playing it and, on occasion, still do. And I’m only slightly better versed in opera, but it was nice to see that the topic of religious hypocrisy—Elmer Gantry by Robert Aldridge and Hershel Garfein—inspired two Grammys: Best Contemporary Classical Composition, as well as Best Engineered Album. What I am well-versed in, though, is jazz and Chick Corea was a two Grammy winner for Best Improvised Jazz Solo and Best Instrumental Jazz Album.
This category, jazz, is where the “restructuring” of the Grammy Awards really became confusing. Just the idea of recognizing a best improvised jazz solo without recognizing a non-improvised one makes my fingernails itch. While guitarist Pat Metheny’s “What’s It All About” took the Best New Age Album award, his performance on the CD, which was fantastic, is really coming out of the jazz-based sensibilities his entire career is steeped in. I can hear almost no resemblance in his playing to George Winston, but I definitely can hear a resemblance to that of Fred Hersch, a runner-up to Corea. Possibly the most damning example of this confusion is found in the absence of the “Best Jazz Vocal Duo/Group Album” award (while the distinction of “vocal duo/group” is offered in other categories). The result this year was that a drummer, Terri Lyne Carrington, took the Best Jazz Vocal Album award over veteran vocalists Karrin Allyson, Kurt Elling, Tierney Sutton, and Roseanna Vitro. While Carrington’s album, The Mosaic Project, features excellent singers—Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Nona Hendryx, Cassandra Wilson, Esperanza Spalding, Helen Sung, Tineke Postma, Geri Allen, Patrice Rushen, Ingrid Jensen, Sheila E., and Gretchen Parlato—none are mentioned in the award itself, which reads: “Terri Lyne Carrington & Various Artists.” This is not to take away from the musical integrity of Carrington’s project, but the individuality of the jazz vocalist is obscured and even divorced from the final product vis-à-vis musical industry recognition, which is highly questionable and a direct result of the Grammy Awards categories’ restructuring.
To be brief, the elimination of the Vocal Performance Male, Female, and Duo/Group categories and the Jazz Fusion Performance, Original Jazz Composition, Latin Jazz Album, and Contemporary Album categories will only help to mislead mainstream perceptions of American music, just as the elimination of Best Latin Recording and individual Best Latin Pop, Latin Rock/Alternative or Urban, Regional Mexican, Mexican/Mexican-American, Banda, Norteño, Tejano, Latin Urban, Merengue, Salsa, and Salsa/Merengue Album categories will. On Monday’s Democracy Now!, Amy Goodman interviewed Oscar Hernández and Roberto Lovato, who discussed this as well as the current protest and lawsuit spearheaded by composer/drummer/bandleader/educator Bobby Sanabria. In solidarity with his efforts, I did not watch the Grammy Awards ceremony on television.
While I was composing this blog entry, I took a break for dinner with the Mrs. (among her many talents, she cooks great Alsatian spareribs!) and we saw a special on an underwater archaeological project in the Bahamas. One of the fossils they found was a 1,000-year-old skull of a caiman-like animal that hasn’t been alive there for centuries. One of the theories presented to explain the animal’s extinction from the islands was that the indigenous human population that arrived there 800 or so years ago brought domesticated hunting animals that decimated the population until it died off. When I saw that, I immediately thought of the Grammy Awards categories being decimated by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (especially the Native American category). I also thought about a book mentioned by William Jefferson Clinton as being his inspiration when he was first elected to the presidency of the United States called Leadership Jazz by Max DePree. Depree described leading a group, especially in business, as being more analogous to playing jazz, where one is constantly improvising according to what’s going on in the moment, rather than playing in groups where all the notes are arranged beforehand. It struck me as peculiar that the corporate arm of the music industry would be restructuring the music it offers to the American public in a way that whittles away at how improvisation is included in that musical offering by eliminating those categories where it is most prevalent. Leaving jazz as the sole vehicle for improvisation makes me nervously think of the case of the hunting dogs of the Lucayan Indians. This might be something to keep in mind as we negotiate our various ways through the maze of the mainstream musical milieu we know and love. It’s a jungle out there!