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2020 Jazz Grammy Winners – Triumph Amidst the Controversy

Curtis Davenport, February 2020 — It’s no secret that this year’s Grammy awards were mired in controversy, prior to the presentation of a single trophy. The Recording Academy’s new CEO and president, Deborah Dugan, was ousted, after just five months on the job. Among the litany of charges that she has made was that “there were complaints in the jazz category” of irregularities in the nomination process. A disturbing accusation, that is as of now, still unproven.

Nevertheless, the Jazz Grammys that were presented, went to the most part to familiar names. Though some of the performances were departures from their artistic norms, their familiarity was helpful, as the awards are voted on by those inside and outside of the jazz community.

And the winners are:

BEST IMPROVISED JAZZ SOLO: “Sozinho” – Randy Brecker, soloist (from his album Rocks: Randy Brecker and NDR Big Band)

This was the seventh win for the 74-year-old trumpeter. It was a nice performance, on a solid album. He beat out fine performances from Christian McBride, Melissa Aldana and Branford Marsalis, among others, to take home the trophy. Being completely honest, Brecker’s track was the weakest among the nominees. However, he is arguably the best known of the nominees, rivaled only by Marsalis. His work alongside his late brother, Michael and the respect he has gained for his stellar work in the studios and beyond, in his 50-year career, more than likely carried the day.

BEST JAZZ VOCAL ALBUM: 12 Little Spells – Esperanza Spalding

Since her shocking win of the “Best New Artist” Grammy in 2011, Ms. Spalding has become one of the faces of jazz’s next generation. Her popularity and recognition have now put her in the awkward position of winning jazz awards, even when the music’s relationship to jazz is tangential at best, such as on this album. Even Esperanza herself protested that 12 Little Spells, was not a jazz album. Despite her disclaimer, she took home her fourth Grammy for this album of quirky and interesting alternative music, with titles dedicated mostly to parts of the human body. The spectacular sophomore album by Jazzmeia Horn, or the fine efforts by respected veteran vocalists, Catherine Russell, Tierney Sutton or Sara Gazarek, all were deservingly nominated and were worthy of the award. But name recognition reared its head again.

BEST JAZZ INSTRUMENTAL ALBUM: Finding Gabriel – Brad Mehldau

This was Brad Mehldau’s tenth nomination and his first victory. He is one of the finest and most respected jazz pianists on the scene today, with over thirty albums to his name, over a 25 plus year career, some of them are modern classics. That he finally wins a Grammy for this album, an ambitious and iconoclastic work that borrows as much from rock, funk and hip-hop as it does from jazz; makes me feel the same way as I did, when Al Pacino finally won an Oscar for Scent of a Woman. The work wasn’t bad, but he deserved the recognition long ago, for far better efforts. That said, it’s great that they have recognized some of his towering gifts.

BEST LARGE JAZZ ENSEMBLE ALBUM: The Omni-American Book Club – Brian Lynch Big Band

This is the underrated trumpeter’s second Grammy win, the first in this category. This time, the voters got it right. Brian Lynch’s Big Band album, filled with impressive arrangement and first-rate sidemen, was IMO, the best big band album of the year, hands-down. It mixes 21st Century compositional ideas, with some solid, swinging charts and several surprises, to keep us guessing. If you dig modern big bands, you should own this disc. Congratulations to Brian Lynch, and everyone involved.

BEST LATIN JAZZ ALBUM: Antidote – Chick Corea and The Spanish Heart Big Band

This was the 78-year-old icon’s 23rd Grammy victory (you read that right); his first in the Latin Jazz category. I knew this would happen from the first time I heard this disc. It’s very good. Chick is still a killer and with guests such as Ruben Blades, you can’t go wrong. As much as I knew it would happen, I didn’t want it to, because incredible artists, with stellar recordings, like fellow nominees Miguel Zenon and David Sanchez, don’t stand a chance with the voters, once Corea’s legendary name appears on a ballot. I’m happy for Chick but I’d be happier, after almost two dozen awards, if they would recognize someone else. 

We’ve already heard some great releases in early 2020. Despite the controversies great jazz, in the end will prevail.

All opinions in this post are mine alone and they do not necessarily represent the opinions of JazzArts Charlotte.

About the Author

Curtis DavenportCurtis Davenport
Curtis is a jazz historian, blogger and veteran radio personality. He currently produces the popular blog, and the web-based radio station, CurtJazz Radio.
Follow Curtis on his website, Curt’s Jazz Cafe, CurtJazz Radio, Facebook and Twitter.

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