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How to Inoculate Yourself From the Grammys

2011 February 11

Its Grammy time and that can mean only one thing: if you’re a serious music lover, you are feeling morose and impotent.  Every year around this time, I go to to see who the nominees are and, usually, I come away from that experience in a full-on existential funk.  It’s never the records that you think deserve to be nominated.  The pop categories are full of the most saccharine and plastic dross that got the most exposure on morning radio shows in the past year.  All those songs that accompanied the end credits to those supremely over-budget summer action films that we regret having paid to see.  Or sometimes just the musical excrement of whatever tired pop star the labels trotted out this year to wear skin-tight spandex and wave her ass around like a stripper to semi-ironic 80’s-reminiscent background music.  Really, I’m not sure what the hell is going on any more.

I mean, if I were to rush out and buy all the records on the nominees list and listen through them, I’d probably think American music had finally reached its long-awaited creative nadir. And probably, as far as our popular music is concerned, we’re in a liminal state between artistic paradigm shifts. I keep waiting to be impressed by something new AND ingenious from the pop music scene. So far, there’s a lot of either mediocre sameness or moderately interesting new sounds. But nothing, yet, that is fully in and of itself brilliant. But while the Justin Biebers, Alicia Keyses, and—indeed—Ladies Gaga continue to underwhelm in the pop arena, there are beautiful things happening on the outskirts of American music that temper the creeping necrosis of mediocrity that is trying to take over.

2010 was actually a pretty good year for jazz music. One of my favorite recordings this year was the solo piano record by Vijay Iyer. Iyer is one of the most talented young pianists working in jazz. His somewhat avant-garde style is challenging but offers great rewards if one is willing to listen intensely for a few minutes. His grasp of harmony is stunning, his melodic inclinations are alluring, and his rhythmic sensibility is muscular without seeming destructive. Yet, for me, the most enticing reason to listen to Vijay Iyer is his supremely elegant approach to music. Whether he is playing an original song or a highly chromaticized interpretation of some standard, he brings a maturity and patience to the music that is very difficult to deny. That sure hand and incredible technique make for some high quality music. His record, simply entitled Solo, is worth listening to when you have a few quiet minutes to consider something beautiful. The opening track to the record is Iyer’s awesome take on the Michael Jackson song “Human Nature.” And it’s probably the best argument one can make on the record’s behalf.

If you’re looking for a great jazz band you might want to get hip to the Charles Lloyd Quartet’s recent release, Mirror. For the aficionados, Lloyd will be a familiar name. He is one of jazz’s most interesting and illusive entities. He broke on the scene in the 60s with greats like Chico Hamilton and Cannonball Adderley and quickly came into his own with the famous quartet that introduced the world to Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnnette, and Cecil McBee. After making a huge splash for two years, the band dissolved and Lloyd basically retired from the jazz scene. He recorded quite a bit as side man for pop acts but didn’t really return to jazz until the 80s. Since then, he’s made beautiful record after beautiful record— all worth owning. But in the last few years he’s been playing what I believe is quite possibly the best music of his life with his new quartet. Lloyd is in his 70s but surrounds himself with talented young  men. His current trio consists of master drummer Eric Harland, the utterly tasteful bassist Rueben Rogers, and recent MacArthur Fellow pianist Jason Moran. That trio alone would knock anyone’s socks off. You put Lloyd at its head, and you’ve got music that reaches back into the spirituality and drive of John Coltrane’s great quartet and yet also seems almost futuristic at times.

You can find an excellent interview with Charles Lloyd about the new quartet and the new record by WBGO’s Joshua Jackon here.

And what if vocal jazz is your cup of tea? Well, fear not, last year saw the debut album of Mr. Gregory Porter—a Brooklyn resident and a vocalist extraordinaire. Listening to just the first few minutes of Porter’s album Water is all the convincing I needed. The cat can sing. His voice is warm, rich, and papery. It glides and grates through melodies with such a purposeful tenderness you’ll find yourself torn between singing along or just keeping quiet. Check out his take on the Johnny Mercer song, “Skylark”

Not only does he have a beautiful voice and great musical instincts, Porter is a fantastic songwriter as well. Just about half of the songs on the album are originals. His lyrical choices are a wonder. Listening to the title track is like listening to someone sing a Robert Frost poem. Elegance and simplicity. I’d stack a song like “Water” or “The Lonely One” up against any of the more popular Grammy contenders this year. It’s not even a question. Porter has the ineffable quality of being able to interpret a lyric with effortless urgency. You may hear a song, enjoy the mere construction of the song, harmony and melody and the like, and yet, at the end, you’ve no question what the song was about. You can feel, almost viscerally, what the song is trying to say. Porter takes you on a journey away from your own body and into the music. That’s what real jazz singing will do to you.

Maybe jazz is not really your first choice of genres when it comes to music. Fair enough. If you look hard enough, you can find some truly artful non-jazz records from 2010. The return of Gil Scott-Heron to our collective musical consciousness was particularly poignant this past year. Heron’s record, I’m New Here, was a great way for him to reassert himself as the preeminent African-American musical griot. If you’re familiar with his earlier works, you may be a bit shocked by the music on this record. While the lyrical tropes, the melodic cadences, and the subject matter are very much in the strike zone for the bard, the accompanying tracks are something entirely new. The tracks are mostly heavily produced beats with strings and wonky synthesizers and fat, ugly bass patches. It’s rather jarring, actually. But then, one realizes, it’s also quite harmonious. Gil Scott-Heron was always an artist comfortable with using the sounds of the day. Yes, comparisons may be odious, but thinking about how I’m New Here uses the newer electronic sounds of this generation versus how some of the proclaimed “voices of this generation” do might make one reevaluate how he or she feels about today’s music. And about who or what is responsible for the towering lameness of much of our current popular music.

Another legendary great who seemed to turn a corner into a new place this past year was none other than Tom Jones. I’ll be honest, I’m actually still in shock about how good his record, Praise and Blame, was. Even having had a good couple of months to get used to it I’m still sort of uncomfortable saying to people, “Have you heard the new Tom Jones record? I’ts great!” And yet it must be said! The record is absolutely fantastic. Jones’s voice is still awesomely powerful, but now instead of using it over cleanly produced 70s pop music, he’s backing himself up with a soulful, simple band. It’s just bass, guitar, drums—and Jones. Well, there is the occasional organ or keyboard, but it’s still a pretty stripped down project for Jones. And let me tell you, the record is going to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Put it in and turn it way up and just sit back. You’ll feel the music moving through you.

And finally, two more great legends teamed up to make a beautiful piece-of-art album this past year. When Elton John and Leon Russell got together to make The Union there must have been lightning and thunder in the heavens signaling the violent delight of the gods. Whatever you might think of Elton John, his back catalog puts most other “living legends” to shame. He’d written more great songs in his youth than most artists will write in their lifetimes. And Leon Russell may not be a household name, but he should be. He is undoubtedly one of the greatest living songwriters around. You really can’t go wrong with a Leon Russell song. I think he is truly a musical genius. “A Song For You,” “Masquerade,” and “Delta Lady” are just a few of his more famous songs. Can you imagine what a joint project would sound like with both John and Russell writing and singing each track? Well, you needn’t because it already exists and it is insanely good. Too many people didn’t even know this record had come out! One of my favorite songs on the record is the haunting Civil War song, “Gone To Shiloh.” It stays with you.

So fret not, dear reader. There is hope yet for us all.  You need only look on the outskirts to find the great music that is still being produced every day in America.  Don’t let the Grammys get you down!  Of course, I’ll be too curious NOT to watch when the awards show airs on Sunday, but I’ll be sure to have a post-Grammy detox playlist ready when all is said and done. Until the smoke clears, we just have to keep self-medicating and be vigilant for signs of great music in the underbrush.

One Response
  1. lacy permalink
    February 15, 2011


    thanks for posting the skylark video.

    you left out esperanza spalding. she truly was deserving of both the nomination and the win. have you listened to her? watch this:

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