CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Brad Mehldau, Esperanza Spalding Are Jazz Grammy Winners

Other winners include Chick Corea, Randy Brecker, and Brian Lynch; amid the celebration, "Music's Biggest Night" is dogged by controversy and tragedy

Brad Mehldau performs at the 2016 Detroit Jazz Festival (photo: Marek Lazarski)

Five musicians took home Grammy gold in jazz categories at Sunday night’s 62nd Annual Grammy Awards. The recipients included three longtime icons of the jazz genre; one of its brightest young stars; and one lesser-known but highly respected stalwart.

Keyboardist Chick Corea, 78, won his 23rd Grammy for Antidote, the Concord Jazz release by Corea’s Spanish Heart Band that was honored as the year’s Best Latin Jazz Album. (Despite Corea’s multiple awards—which, with his 2020 honor, span six decades—this was his first win in the Latin jazz category.) Earlier in the evening, at the non-televised Grammy Premiere Ceremony at Los Angeles’ Microsoft Theater, the Spanish Heart Band performed a rousing rendition of Corea’s “Armando’s Rhumba,” receiving a standing ovation when it concluded.

Trumpeter Randy Brecker received his seventh trophy, this time for Best Improvised Jazz Solo on the track “Sozinho” from his album Rocks (Piloo) with the NDR Big Band. The 74-year-old Brecker has never won a Grammy for his improvising before, although Sunday night’s was his third for a collaboration with a European orchestra; he previously won the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album award in 2007 for his album Some Skunk Funk, recorded live with Germany’s WDR Big Band, and in 2014 for Night in Calisia with Poland’s Kaliszh Philharmonic Orchestra.

This year’s Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album went to another trumpeter, Brian Lynch, who won for The Omni-American Book Club/My Journey Through Literature in Music (Hollistic MusicWorks). One of that album’s nine original compositions by Lynch, “Crucible for Crisis,” was also nominated for Best Instrumental Composition (it lost to Star Wars composer John Williams).

Brad Mehldau, an iconic and highly influential pianist, won the Best Instrumental Jazz Album Grammy for Finding Gabriel, an ambitious project that featured Mehldau on multiple instruments (and vocals) and over a dozen guests. Though he has been nominated 10 times, this was Mehldau’s first Grammy win. Vocalist Luis Fonsi, who presented the award, accepted it on an absent Mehldau’s behalf.

Bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding, perhaps best known for her shock 2011 upset win of the Best New Artist Grammy, took home her fourth award for 12 Little Spells, this year’s pick for Best Jazz Vocal Album. “Music is magic,” she noted in her acceptance speech. “It has the power to alter our reality. … So I’ll see you at many points along this lifelong adventure.”

Spalding was the jazz category’s only female or African-American winner, a notable circumstance during an era in which the Grammys have been increasingly criticized for their overwhelming tendency toward honoring white males. This year the criticism came to a head, with recently ousted Recording Academy president and CEO Deborah Dugan, the first woman to have held those positions, alleging a culture of sexual misconduct and vote-rigging within the organization.

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Not surprisingly, none of this was addressed directly during either the Premiere Ceremony or the televised Awards Ceremony on Sunday night. Indeed, the televised portion of the event often seemed less like an evening of entertainment than a dispirited and somewhat frantic attempt to avoid the major sociopolitical issues dredged up once again by the Dugan situation. One of the few bright spots was the darkly soulful performance of 18-year-old pop sensation Billie Eilish, who made history by becoming only the second artist to sweep all four top Grammy categories (Song of the Year, Record of the Year, Album of the Year, and Best New Artist).

“We refuse the negative energy—we refuse the old systems,” host Alicia Keys said in a speech at the Sunday-night ceremony, widely interpreted as a reference to the allegations. “We want to be respected and safe in our diversity. We want to be shifting to realness and inclusivity.”

By the time she spoke these words, the Academy’s troubles had been overshadowed by a calamity even fresher in everyone’s mind: the death earlier that day of basketball star Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash along with eight other people, including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna. Although Bryant wasn’t a musician, it was impossible for the award ceremony’s participants to ignore his passing; after all, his retired L.A. Lakers numbers were hanging forlornly above the crowd at the Staples Center, where he had long dominated the court. With the help of Boyz II Men, Keys paid a cappella tribute to Bryant, singing “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye.”

As has become usual, jazz received nary a mention in the main awards show, but it was a different story during the more engaging Premiere Ceremony (streamed live on Twitter), where the great majority of the actual awards were presented. Unlike last year’s Grammys, jazz artists didn’t do that well in jazz-adjacent categories; in addition to John Williams’ besting of Brian Lynch, flamenco-rock fusionists Rodrigo y Gabriela won Best Contemporary Instrumental Album, and Beyoncé’s Homecoming won Best Music Film over Stanley Nelson’s Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool.

It wasn’t all bad news, though. Ranky Tanky, a jazzy quintet that specializes in the Gullah music of South Carolina, won Best Regional Roots Music Album for its second disc, Good Time. Jacob Collier, the 25-year-old English singer and multi-instrumentalist, took home awards for both Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Cappella (his vocal-only take on Henry Mancini’s “Moon River”) and Best Arrangement, Instruments and Vocals (his rearrangement of Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” featuring Take 6 and the Metropole Orkest). Violinist Nicola Benedetti won Best Classical Instrumental Solo for her work on Wynton Marsalis’ Violin Concerto and Fiddle Dance Suite.

And yet, worthy of celebration as these achievements were, they also could not escape being touched by the controversy brewing around the Academy. In a live interview last Thursday on ABC’s Good Morning America, Deborah Dugan specifically singled out the Grammys’ jazz categories as an area where she had evidence of voting irregularities. As of now, however, no further details have been revealed.

A full list of Grammy winners can be found here.