The resonance of any given style of music can swell or shrink in any given year, and for the last several months jazz has enjoyed a bright glow.
Chalk it up to Ken Burns’ PBS documentary and the gargantuan marketing campaign that accompanied it.
And even though just one jazz category is given air time during the televised part of the Grammys show, trust that a lot more listeners will be checking out the artists and albums that claimed winners’ status at the 43rd annual Grammy Awards.
A pair of string players, Pat Metheny and Béla Fleck, walked away with the Best Jazz Instrumental Solo and Best Contemporary Jazz Album awards, respectively.
The 45-year-old Metheny is a sophisticated improviser, and his guitar playing on “(Go) Get It,” from Trio 99-00, caught the ears of voters. The album received a lot of critical applause for its context: a threesome with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Bill Stewart.
Trio work can be a tough assignment, but all of these musicians are wily modernists, and in interviews Metheny has said that this particular rhythm section pushed him to new heights. The band recently released a live disc called Trio-Live.
Banjo-picker Fleck has been honing his idea of acute eclecticism for the last several years. Last year’s Outbound is where his blend of classical, funk, and world melodies came together, dominating the Best Contemporary Jazz Album field.
“It’s cool, because all music is connected,” Fleck told interviewers. “Country, jazz, rock — it all ultimately comes from the same place, and I think any musician knows that. Sometimes people can’t see it that way because of the way things get marketed. But whatever the sound, we’re all just trying to make music.”
Fleck also won a Best Country Instrumental Performance Grammy for “Leaving Cottondale,” a track he recorded with banjo player Alison Brown.
Two of New York’s best tenor saxophonists were winners as well. Branford Marsalis named his hard-hitting quartet disc Contemporary Jazz to tweak those listeners who feel that the instrumental-lite music that dominates jazz radio is the only game in town.
The hard-swinging acoustic fare of Marsalis’ quartet can be brutish in its delivery. Fine with Grammy voters, evidently. The record beat strong competitors, such as Michael Brecker’s Time Is of the Essence and Dave Holland’s Prime Directive.
The era’s other daring tenor man, Joe Lovano, made the right move with his choice to update standards associated with bebop. 52nd Street Themes, which won the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album prize, found a nine-piece band gliding through chestnuts “The Scene Is Clean” and “Tadd’s Delight.”
Lovano has the capacity to make the most lyrical passages carry an emotional weight. And in the case of 52nd Street Themes, Willie “Face” Smith’s precise arrangements provided a plush backdrop for the leader’s tenor sax.
Plush is the right word for the jazz performance that actually took place on the broadcast portion of the Grammys. Vocal harmony group Take 6 supported singer Nnenna Freelon through an array of dips and swoops on Nat “King” Cole’s bluesy “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” The tune was cast as a reminder that a blend of human voices can be just as harmonically intricate as a full reeds section.
Freelon was a nominee. Her Soulcall disc was up against Dee Dee Bridgewater’s Live at Yoshi’s, Freddy Cole’s Merry Go Round, Kurt Elling’s Live in Chicago and Dianne Reeves’ In the Moment – Live in Concert. Reeves’ record won the Grammy. Reeves wasn’t there to accept in person.
Caribbean cultures have had a great impact on jazz improvisers throughout the 1990s. This year’s Best Latin Jazz Album award went to pianist Chucho Valdez. Along with two percussionists, a vocalist and a bassist, the virtuoso Cuban pianist spent a week in 1999 working at New York’s most famous jazz club. The result was the tour de force Live at the Village Vanguard.
Master of vocal nuance and perpetual comeback kid Tony Bennett was acknowledged with a Lifetime Achievement award. Urging young people to get involved with jazz because it’s “honest and spontaneous,” he summarized his feelings about the evening to backstage interviewers.
“This is the one night that I love, because I meet all my fellow performers. This is my 10th Grammy, and I’m thankful that it’s a lifetime achievement award. This is magnificent for me.”
(Click here for a complete list of winners.)