[JPL] Ben Ratliff On Hancock's Grammy In Tomorrow's NY Times

mfa - jazz radio promotion & publicity MitchellFeldmanAssociates at Comcast.net
Mon Feb 11 20:05:07 EST 2008


February 12, 2008


A Victory for Jazz, or Just Grammy Being Grammy?

When something newsworthy or popular or positive happens to a jazz  
musician — a big award, say — many in the jazz world feel astonished  
for about four seconds, then quickly act very smug. You know: We’ve  
been sitting here patiently, full of our aesthetic virtue, so used to  
being ignored, and the world has finally come around to our point of  
view. Are we happy about it? More to the point, what took you so long?

Are we entitled to feel that way about “River: The Joni Letters,” by  
Herbie Hancock, being named album of the year at the Grammys on  
Sunday ? We could, but it would be silly. Perhaps the speculation is  
true that Amy Winehouse and Kanye West split the vote. And yes, it is  
very unusual to see a record of such modest sales win the big prize.  
But inasmuch as it is a jazz album, it is precisely the kind of jazz  
album that would win this award.

First, let’s just get this over with: Where were you in 1965,  
Recording Academy, when Mr. Hancock made his venerated album “Maiden  

But look one year further back to 1964. “Getz/Gilberto” won, and  
besides “River,” it is the only more or less jazz album in 50 years of  
the Grammys to have earned this award. There might be instructive  
logic there to unravel why “River” beat some records that are far more  
successful and far more emblematic of their time. (“River” has sold  
around 55,000 copies, whereas Kanye West’s “Graduation” has sold two  

“Getz/Gilberto” was a collaboration between the jazz saxophonist Stan  
Getz and the bossa nova musician João Gilberto, with his wife at the  
time, Astrud Gilberto, as occasional singer. It shares some important  
qualities with “River.”

Both are quite beautiful, though practical: experiments with strong  
ideas made moderate. Both are syncretist collaborations between a  
flexible jazz musician and a famously uncompromising genius who  
invented his or her own style — two musicians of putatively different  
worlds. Both feature light-voiced singing on a little less than half  
the tracks.

And on both, the drums sound chastened. (When a jazz record with  
really assertive, swinging rhythm wins album of the year, then jazz  
enthusiasts can feel smug. “Good taste” — an idea that means quite a  
lot in this category of the Grammys — can be telegraphed quickly by  
reducing the role of the drums.)

“River” isn’t just a jazz record. It is a singer-songwriter record.  
(Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Corinne Bailey Rae, Leonard Cohen and  
Luciana Souza are on it, all singing Joni Mitchell songs, as is Ms.  
Mitchell herself.) It is soft-edged and literate and respectable. It  
seems, at least, intended as an audience bridger. And it also a very  
Grammy-ish record, not just because Mr. Hancock, and others on it,  
have won various Grammys in the past.

Institutions like to congratulate themselves, and giving the prize to  
“River” can be understood as a celebration of the academy’s more high- 
minded pop impulses. The best album category, in particular, is often  
a corrective or an apology for any excesses or shortcomings of the  

It can amount to a sentimental, history-minded celebration of album  
culture. At this point it can conjure and lament a lost world of  
musicians and styles from the 1970s or before, those who actually  
played instruments, sometimes very well, and trusted their listeners  
to pay attention to them in 40-minute chunks. From the last 15 years  
of the award this idea could explain the victories of Ray Charles,  
Norah Jones, Steely Dan, Santana, Bob Dylan, Tony Bennett and Eric  
Clapton. (It doesn’t explain Celine Dion, but if we perfectly  
understood the mind-set of academy members we wouldn’t watch the show.)

Some of what “River” accomplishes as a jazz record is serious indeed.  
Mr. Hancock’s version of Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” is the modern  
jazz process itself: a complete reharmonization of a familiar song,  
with rhythm that keeps vanishing and reappearing. Wayne Shorter’s  
saxophone playing on many tracks, including his own “Nefertiti” and  
Ms. Mitchell’s “Edith and the Kingpin,” is casually brilliant — some  
kind of strange, subconscious vernacular. And though Ms. Mitchell has  
never called herself a jazz singer, her vocal performance on “The Tea  
Leaf Prophecy” has a rhythmic assurance that a lot of self-identifying  
jazz singers could use.

It’s a cool-tempered album, almost drowsy. In so many ways it does  
seem a strange choice, not just in its modest commercial profile but  
in that it’s the first album to win this particular award for either  
Mr. Hancock or Ms. Mitchell. Yet it is also august and exquisitely  
acceptable: precisely the qualities that this category of the Grammy  
Awards tends to orient itself around.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company


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