The piano solo on “A Change Is Gonna Come,” from Herbie Hancock’s self-released, star-laden Imagine Project, takes a meandering path to the exit aisle. Built on the harmonic turnaround of a sinuous outro vamp, it’s a cyclical slow-fade, shrouded in a light chromatic haze. Any jazz fan would recognize it as textbook Herbie, which is rarely a bad thing-but it’s by no means a singular achievement for him, or even a distinctive one. You’d be hard-pressed to anoint it the Best Improvised Jazz Solo of 2010, though that’s the very designation it received at the 53rd Grammy Awards this year.
Griping about the Grammys is one of the more tiresome armchair pastimes within the music industry: It’s ineffectual and petty, and often all too obvious. But the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which administers the awards, opened itself to a new level of scrutiny this spring when it eliminated more than 30 categories, in “Fields” as diverse as Pop, Classical, Country, R&B and American Roots Music. The reduction, undertaken in the name of streamlining and refocusing the awards, left the Jazz field with four categories instead of six. Best Latin Jazz Album and Best Contemporary Jazz Album got the ax, apparently because there were too few unique entries in each. (The minimum number of entries for a category has been upped to 40; previously it was 25.)
Naturally complaints arose among the affected constituencies. And an understandable case could be made for preserving Best Latin Jazz Album, despite the parallel universe known as the Latin Grammy Awards, which has an identically titled category. You could argue, as many have, that the decision amounts to a cultural erasure. The pertinent question for some prominent Latin-jazz exponents-like pianist Chucho Valdés and percussionist Poncho Sanchez, recent nominees in both the Latin Grammys and the plain-old Grammys-is whether one ceremony might not be enough. Eddie Palmieri, the legendary pianist and bandleader, is among those who contend that it isn’t.
I agree with his position, though it gets tricky. Why not encourage Recording Academy voters to consider an album like Guillermo Klein’s Domador de Huellas-or Miguel Zenón’s Esta Plena, to name another acclaimed release from the same eligibility period-as a Best Jazz Instrumental Album contender, without the preceding qualifier? More and more artists are choosing not to self-identify their music as Latin jazz, and it isn’t being received that way. This year Providencia, by pianist Danilo Pérez, earned a nomination in the Best Jazz Instrumental Album category, despite its explicit foothold in Latin-American music. The distinction is worth considering, in light of an evolving idiom.
The implosion of Best Contemporary Jazz Album raises different questions. This is the category traditionally dominated by smoothsters and fusionistas: In this past year’s lexicon, your Jeff Lorbers and John McLaughlins. (The winner was bassist Stanley Clarke, who straddles the fence.) Given the predispositions of the Grammy electorate, I doubt artists like these will henceforth be banished from the kingdom. Instead they’ll now crop up in Best Jazz Instrumental Album, which will mean less progressive results. Looking again at the most recent awards cycle, does it really seem alarmist to suggest that pianist Vijay Iyer, an unusually daring nominee, would probably have been edged out by the likes of Clarke? No disrespect to the many excellent musicians working in contemporary jazz, but I worry about encroachment. It’s not too hard to envision a Best Jazz Instrumental Album lineup that reflects Billboard‘s Jazz Albums chart, whose No. 1 artist, as I write this, is Boney James.
Which is one more reason I think the Recording Academy should have shuttered a different category: Best Improvised Jazz Solo. Personally I’ve never grasped how such a micro-targeted honor made the grade in the first place. There are hundreds of albums released every year under the loose rubric of jazz, which means there are many thousands of eligible solos, across all styles and settings. And yet the Recording Academy has managed to reward just a small circle of familiar improvisers, even for substandard work. Before the onset of what I facetiously like to call the Hancock Clause-if nominated, must win-there was a similar unspoken rule for the dearly departed saxophonist Michael Brecker, who prevailed in the category six times. Brecker’s fellow multiple winners represent a cross-section of jazz celebrity in their time: Oscar Peterson, from 1978 through ’80 and again in ’91; Wynton Marsalis, for three straight years in the mid-’80s; Joe Henderson in ’93 and ’94, at the height of a much-publicized late renaissance. Miles Davis won in 1983 for “We Want Miles,” in 1987 for “Tutu,” and in 1990 for “Aura.” I’m going to go out on a limb and say those were sentimental wins.
As a jazz critic, I know how difficult it is to evaluate a solo improvisation. What are the criteria for accomplishment, anyway? Structural elegance? Dynamic verve? Fluency? Unpredictability? Originality? Probably all of the above to some degree, though we’re not talking about quantifiable elements here. A timeless solo speaks both to the head and the heart, innovating on one level and resonating on another. (By that token Hancock should have won in 1995 for his effervescent tear through “No More Blues,” on Henderson’s Double Rainbow: The Music of Antonio Carlos Jobim. Not that I begrudge that year’s winner, Benny Carter.) If I were tasked with choosing five standout solos for a body of nominees, I’d probably disappear for a month and resurface only grimly satisfied with my selections.
None of the solos nominated this year would have made my cut, with one exception: Keith Jarrett’s exquisite feat of pianism on “Body and Soul,” from Jasmine, his ECM album with bassist Charlie Haden. Reverential about melody but also kissed by a felicitous grace, it’s an emotional and technical tour de force. I’m certain we’ll be returning to it years from now, upholding it as an exemplary feat in a tradition full of them. Which, in the end, will be the only award that truly matters.