Monday, February 21, 2011

The Ten Best Moments at the 53rd Annual Grammys

Before this year’s Grammy awards are incorrectly written off as a series of acrimonious disappointments and bizarre twists, it's important to quickly note several very good things that happened.
Not that it’s easy to overlook the Grammy for Record of the Year going to a country band’s tune that could well become subject to a plagiarism suit over the changes borrowed almost note-for-note from the Alan Parsons Project 1982 “Eye in the Sky,” (George Harrison was successfully sued for less) or the bewildering award of Album of the Year to a collection of aging-teen angst clichés that so successfully extinguished the buzz of the evening’s festivities that when the recipients enjoined the assembled revelers to go home as they played a final encore, their request was entirely unnecessary--tear gas would not have cleared the room any faster.
No question, the sight of a candy-assed media fabrication like Justin Bieber sashaying his way through an engineered Toontown of a recording career, accompanied by pubescent girls and adoring accountants wetting themselves, is not easy to endure (the mere fact that he didn’t win a Grammy almost made the cut for my Ten Best Moments.)
Nor is being subjected to Eminem’s glowering self-pity as he did his rendition of a musical John Dillinger ambush, attracted to the glow of Staples Center by the prospect of seeing his own latter-day Myrna Loy… only to be disappointed to find Lady Gaga there instead, her pale-but-faithfully energetic impression of Madonna being sucked skyward by the tornado of popular taste.
But those were just annoying interruptions. Although your cynicism could make you want to pour yourself a strong drink, the only real cure for resenting another’s success is to succeed yourself. Instead of feeling defeated by a force of nature, Jeff Lynne declared in 1971 that his Electric Light Orchestra would pick up where the Beatles had left off. How big an ego does that require? One big enough to keep you at it until you succeed. John Lennon later admiringly called ELO the Sons of the Beatles… though they never won a Grammy, that's almost as good. (There will be no further discussion here of Grammy nominees who should have won.)
Here is my Top Ten List of the egos that were big enough. Thankfully.
10. Jeff Beck, the impossible-to-categorize car mechanic who is welcome in any venue as one of the most expressively versatile electric guitarists in the world, was nominated for 6 Grammys and won three of the most improbable: one for his work on Herbie Hancock’s Imagine project (Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals), one for Best Pop Instrumental Performance for his inspired turn playing the aria from the final act of Puccini’s Turandot, and Best Rock Instrumental Performance for his keyboard player Jason Rebello’s “Hammerhead,” a nifty little jazz/rock homage to Jan Hammer. In accepting his awards at the sparsely attended pre-broadcast Other Grammys, he looked genuinely humbled as he said: “It just proves if you keep going, you might get there.” Couldn’t have happened to a better guy.
9. Beck’s old buddy and fellow jazz/rock pioneer from the 70s and 80s, Stanley Clarke, invited Japanese pianist Hiromi, saxophonist Bob Sheppard and legendary Manhattan Transfer vocalist Cheryl Bentyne, among others, to join him in recording with his working band and producer Lenny White last March at a Burbank studio. That the resulting CD, Stanley Clarke Band, won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album, means there’s hope for jazz and jazz/rock. Who knows, maybe even for rock. Nobody today believes that jazz was ever meant for more than 100 people in a dark, crowded club, or that, as the 70s spilled into the 80s, bands like Return to Forever and Weather Report were playing to thousands of people at a time.
8. Something happened as the 80s got underway. Ask some jazz musicians or fans knowledgeable about that period in jazz and you’re likely to get a face, an unpleasant one. When musical instrument designer (and guitarist/songwriter) Roger Linn accepted his technical Grammy, he said “Sometimes I have a hard time explaining to people what I do for a living. I’ve found that the following usually works pretty well. I’ll say, do you remember back in the early 1980s when pop music started using drum machines and consequently lost all of its soul and humanness? Well, I’d say, it’s my fault.” Truthfully, I always think of that time period as being a pop music golden age filled with the innovative outpourings of people like Prince and Thomas Dolby and Peter Gabriel and Michael Jackson. It’s the jazzers who lost their souls in the 80s, when they became desperate to get in on the action and sold out to the New Age money devil. Not that Jeff Lorber and the Rippingtons and Chick and Herbie didn’t make any good music, but the tidal wave of crappy fusion that was spawned almost killed the franchise. In fact, even now the prognosis for jazz’s body politic is shaky, as we scan the horizon for a doctor who’ll discover a cure for the epidemic of quiet recital music and empty clubs. You know you’re still in trouble when the brand name familiarity of standard covers and tribute albums can still beat out original material for a Grammy. Not that there's anything wrong with that (as Seinfeld used to say). You gotta make a buck. I'm just sayin'.
7. When John Mayer, Norah Jones and Keith Urban sang Dolly Parton’s “Joleen” they demonstrated why country music has become such a dominant force in music. The wheel has come all the way around. After Hank Williams and Patsy Cline opened the gates for the group of singers and songwriters that included Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, they brought with them their passionate love of the black singers like Ray Charles, Little Richard and Fats Domino. At that musical nexus there were no categories where all these popular musical forms could fit, so before there was folk, or rhythm and blues, or country or rock and roll, there was music. Norah Jones and her two guitar-strumming beaus reminded us.
6. I’d never heard of Mumford & Sons before last Sunday night’s Grammy broadcast, but suffice it to say, as they played I didn’t hear folk or country or blues or bluegrass, I just heard music. There is no category that adequately describes their rambunctious, over-the-ramparts enthusiasm for telling a musical story. Sun Records founder Sam Phillips would have listened to these brilliant young musicians and their elemental, high amperage passion and signed them immediately. John Hammond, as he did with Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan, would have signed them with Columbia and personally driven them all to Studio B in his own car.
5. Roy Haynes will celebrate his 86th birthday next month. You’ll often hear a musician casually say about a fellow player, “He/she’s played with everybody.” But if you ever hear Roy Haynes say it about himself, it will actually be true. When he received his Special Merit Award Grammy, he had contributed to and played with Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Eric Dolphy, Bud Powell, Stan Getz, Sara Vaughn, Jackie McLean, Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper and Sonny Rollins, as well as younger players like Chick Corea, Gary Burton, and Pat Metheny, and younger players still, like Christian McBride, Wallace Roney and Kenny Garrett. You might say that if the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences couldn’t manage to recognize people like Roy Haynes with Grammys, the awards would have no meaning at all.
4. Cee Lo Green won a Grammy for Best Urban/Alternative Performance for the brilliantly produced “Fuck You.” I have no idea what the other performances were, but frankly, with a bomb like this song it didn’t matter and never will. Arranged with classic mid-70s Motown instrumentation, Cee Lo charmingly was engineered to sound like he’s channeling Marvin Gaye, Al Green and Eddie LeVert as he sings the oldest song in the world. Maybe the funniest, most honest version yet. For his performance at Grammys LIII, Cee Lo dressed up in his most outlandish George Clinton threads, and backed himself with the Muppets plus Gwyneth Paltrow, defusing the dirty bomb CBS felt they had to censor (I’m uncertain if they did, I didn’t read Cee Lo’s lips.) I can’t imagine anyone listening to the song and not smiling. If there is such a person, this video (my nomination for video of the year, amateur or professional, no runner-up) would be the cure:

3. The opening number was an Aretha tribute that burned. It burned so hot that it eclipsed the memory of the 2006 Grammys opener when Sting, Dave Matthews, Vince Gill and drummer Pharrell Williams ripped it up on the Lennon-McCartney tune “I Saw Her Standing There.” Not only did Christina Aguilera vindicate herself after her mnemonically-challenged Super Bowl XLV rendition of the U.S. national anthem, she lovingly shredded “Ain’t No Way” and along with her sisters Florence Welch, Jennifer Hudson, Martina McBride and Yolanda Adams provided monster back-up vocals for each other and totally killed on “Till You Come Back To Me,” “Natural Woman,” “Respect,” and “Think,” among others. If you missed it:

2. Esperanza Spalding’s Grammy could well have been my #1 choice. Her Grammy and my joy at her receiving the award are self-explanatory in many ways. Stunningly beautiful and hugely talented, she is the first jazz artist to ever receive the Best New Artist award. Imagine the YouTube searches on her name the next day! The friendly new Google search engine was completing the word "j-a-z-z" before the searcher reached the second "z"! And how did a jazz artist beat out a tsunami of public sentiment in favor of Justin Bieber? The only explanation is that members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences were listening to the music.
1. How good was Mick Jagger’s first appearance onstage at the Grammys? So good that I have to pick it over Esperanza's Grammy win because in the end, it's not about the accolades, it's not about who's deserving and who's not, the money, the vaporized CD sales or the apocalyptic economy. It's not about the big picture, it's about the little one. Through the magic of music Mick Jagger stripped away every worry and concern and thrust us headlong into a magnificent arrangement full of horns and a humping backbeat, and for that instant in time he captured the moment so completely that it's all there was. One NARAS attendee, an acclaimed singer/songwriter who was seated close enough to the stage to see the sweat on his face, told me of hoarseness the next day from prolonged screams of approval during Jagger’s performance--so severe that singing would have been impossible. The leader of “the greatest rock and roll band in the world,” who had begun his career in Alex Korner’s jazz-influenced Blues Incorporated nearly fifty years earlier, pranced, strutted, and sang “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” in tribute to Solomon Burke, with the fervor and commitment of a born-again rocker preaching to the choir. Like all great performances, the electricity and immediacy came from the artist’s embrace of the crowd in front of him, instead of some imagined international audience that would hear and see it broadcast later. Within seconds he had the audience of his peers in the palm of his hand and revved up to a shouting hysteria. From the moment the spotlight hit him as he stood center stage--back to the audience, turning slowly while his cape was lifted from his shoulders a la James Brown--he took command of the room with the authority of a matador and gave one of the great performances of his lifetime.