Monday, February 11, 2008

It's Upsetting That They're Calling This an "Upset"

First things first: My hat is off to jazz legend Herbie Hancock, who evidently surprised a lot of people last night by taking home the Album of the Year Grammy for River: The Joni Letters, his tribute to the music of Joni Mitchell. In doing so, he beat such favorites as Kanye West, Amy Winehouse and Foo Fighters. He had already taken home similar honors in the contemporary jazz category, but no jazz instrumentalist had won the top album honor since Stan Getz did so in 1965. Hancock noted as much in his acceptance speech:
"It's been 43 years … I want to thank the academy for courageously breaking the mold this time."
I agree, and it's really a shame that it's seen as "breaking the mold" for what could be considered the truest American music to come home with such a victory.

As Hancock noted a few days before the ceremony in another article,
"It's pretty strange on one hand," Mr. Hancock, 67, says by phone from his LA home. "Here is this music that is constantly evolving and growing, that's improvised, that's an American creation. That bridge is the virtuosity of classical music and the soul and heart and feeling of the blues ... and only [nominated for Best Album] twice in 50 years. I'm glad I was one of them."
As I've said before, I haven't paid a whole lot of attention to the Grammys in quite a while, ever since I found out in college that all the voters don't necessarily even get to hear everything they're voting on unless the record label sends it to them (though I suppose that issue has been rendered mostly moot with the advent of mass email and the mp3). Mark Stryker of the Detroit Free Press calls Hancock's win a victory for the whole world of jazz:
I stopped watching the Grammy Awards a long time ago when it became clear that the music I care the most about — jazz and classical — were treated with about as much respect as a fire hydrant at a dog show. The jazz and classical awards aren’t given out on the broadcast anymore, and whenever artists from these genres sneak into one of the feature performance spots, the results are almost always a kitsch fest.

So I was stunned when I woke up Monday to headlines that pianist Herbie Hancock beat out such pop music juggernauts as Kanye West, Amy Winehouse, Vince Gill and the Foo Fighters on Sunday to win album of the year at the 50th Grammy Awards. Hancock’s sublime tribute to Joni Mitchell, “River: The Joni Letters” became the first jazz album to win best album since Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto won for “Getz/Gilberto” in 1965.

In the pop music world, Hancock’s win was a bigger upset than the Giants beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl. For jazz fans, it’s more like the American hockey team beating the Russians at the 1980 Olympics. Do you believe in miracles? Yes!
Read the whole thing. But I'll add one more quote that shines some light on why Stryker thinks this victory is good for jazz as a whole:
Only blind optimists or na├»ve fools would interpret Hancock’s victory Sunday as a harbinger of a resurgence of jazz. But, as my financial adviser likes to say when I complain about single-digit returns on an investment, it’s better than a poke in the eye. Hancock, one of the most influential pianists in modern jazz, is on the mind of millions of people today. A lot of them might be moved to buy the album, and some might even be inspired to dig into Hancock’s history, where they will discover his landmark albums from the ’60s like “Maiden Voyage” and his pitch perfect contributions to the Miles Davis Quintet. Amazon.com reported Monday afternoon that "River" had shot up its Exclusive sales chart from No. 50 to No. 1.

How Hancock managed to win Sunday is an intriguing question. It’s possible that the overwhelming favorites West and Winehouse split the vote among the academy’s trendy hip-hop and alternative factions, allowing a dark horse like Hancock to amass a coalition large enough to win.
Hey--however it happened, there'll be no complaints from me. And I'll let Hancock himself have the last word on the overall state of jazz in the States vs. abroad:
"America today is very much in the short-term focus. Whatever is the now and whatever makes the most noise at the moment is what everybody pays attention to. The rest of the world is not like that. They still embrace what they feel is quality, no matter when it first reached their shores."
Those who are immersed in American pop music culture have no idea what they're missing. Hopefully, Hancock's win will help change that for some people.

They like Mike: Speaking of the Grammys, Michael Brecker was a multiple winner, garnering Best Instrumental Jazz Album, Individual or Group, for his posthumous masterpiece, Pilgrimage, as well as Best Jazz Instrumental Solo for "Anagram" off that recording. It's a shame that people aren't always so honored while they're still with us, but at least his name is still getting out there.

Other locals didn't make a Denton this ceremony: I was sorry to see that musicians from my former home of Denton didn't fare too well last night; my old schoolmate Steve Wiest lost out to Vince Mendoza in the instrumental arranging category, and both Brave Combo (a Denton fixture) and Bubba Hernandez (a former fellow KNTU DJ and a former member of Brave Combo) lost out in the polka category. And the third release from former UNTer Norah Jones didn't even get nominated this time...

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