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Jazz Singer Nnenna Freelon On Grief, Her New 2021 Album 'Time Traveler' & Why Music Is Still "Slept On" As A Healing Agent

Nnenna Freelon

Photo: Chris Charles

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Jazz Singer Nnenna Freelon On Grief, Her New 2021 Album 'Time Traveler' & Why Music Is Still "Slept On" As A Healing Agent

Three years ago, the five-time GRAMMY nominee Nnenna Freelon lost her husband to the debilitating disease ALS. Her new 2021 album, 'Time Traveler,' isn't about obfuscating grief but allowing it to take root and flower

GRAMMYs/Jun 18, 2021 - 06:15 pm

The Onion once ran an article headlined "Pitchfork Gives Music 6.8." It's a gag, but it raises a compelling question: Thousands of years into its existence, after an astronomical number of permutations, is music still weirdly underrated? 

While many simply hear it as a "soundtrack to our lives," others see it as a lifestyle unto itself. And for her part, the jazz singer Nnenna Freelon takes it a step further: Songs are like living, breathing people you meet, fall in love with, fight and grow old with. And like trusted friends, they can guide people through unimaginable sorrow.

"People have relationships with them. It’s this co-communication," the five-time GRAMMY nominee tells GRAMMY.com. "This mysterious, magical thing that happens when you enter into the circle of a song. It's kind of something you can't exactly describe, and in the world of grief, I think there's great untapped potential for healing around music."

How does Freelon know this to be true? She's lived it. After her husband died of the degenerative, cureless disease ALS in 2019, Freelon turned to songs—endlessly covered ones, like "Moon River," "Time After Time" and "Come Rain or Come Shine," that nonetheless revealed fresh meaning. 

She mixed those with originals and reimaginings of '70s hits by artists like Marvin Gaye and Jim Croce to make Time Traveler, an inventory of Freelon's memory bank that came out May 21. (This summer, Freelon also launched her "Great Grief" podcast, a compendium of music and stories about grief and loss.) 

Freelon sees Time Traveler as a portal for the listener’s memories—especially of those no longer on the planet. "I would say to just enter the space with the idea of time traveling in your head," Freelon says. "The title allows you to go where you will." In other words: Come as you are, clear your head and behold music's still-undersung facility for psychic transportation and emotional restoration.

Nnenna Freelon gave GRAMMY.com a Zoom call to discuss the making of Time Traveler, why songs have the integrity of human beings and how reckoning with sorrow is like repotting and propagating houseplants.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I think one underdiscussed thing about grief is the musical relationships you build with your loved ones and how you can manifest them into the world. Can you talk about that at all?

I think you're right. I think we're sleeping on music in terms of its power to transport us. It actually can take us back to the place where we first heard it—where there's an emotional memory—because the body keeps the score. That's the truth. All your trauma, all your joy, all your living—your body records it and it becomes your music. It becomes your composition. 

We as musicians relate to the world with our ears and our heart. We hear you before we see you. We hear you coming! Sometimes, people even sort of project their vibration, musically—the good and the not-so-good. You know, I think songs themselves have spirits. I'm a jazz singer, right? So, I'm delving into the American Songbook, right? These are not songs that I wrote. They're not songs that even necessarily belong to my time. They were written in the '40s, written in the '30s. 

My philosophy is that when you meet a song, you learn it. That's the honest and humble thing to do. You learn it as it was written. And then you ask for permission to change it. And if it says "No," you'd better leave it alone! You'd better sing it straight! And the songs themselves also have a world that they've created in the culture because others have sung them before you got there.

So, people have relationships with them. And I know this is true because people come to me and spill out all this story around a song I sang that is not even anything I did. It's this co-communication, this mysterious, magical thing that happens when you enter into the circle of a song. It's kind of something you can't exactly describe, and in the world of grief, I think there's great untapped potential for healing around music.

Even when I hear a standard I've heard a million times, it's doing its spiritual work in the present. My relationship with it is still developing.

It's an ongoing, real-time evolution. And then there are songs that appear for a certain time and they disappear and never reappear. "Whatever happened to... blank?" And sometimes, they only appear for you. They're your personal [entity] and everybody else is like, "No, I've never heard of that. I don't know that one." So, I think right there in that observation is the possibility of tapping into it in a real, intentional way for connection with each other.

Certain songs are elastic as far as time, space and perception go. Plus, they can bring people together.

Honestly, this yickety-yak, everybody a talking head, "This is what I think! That's not true!" and all that? No. Sing a song. Sing a damn song. Because music gets into our spirit in a whole different way—and I don't mean a political song either. If you sing something of beauty, who can resist beauty? Who can resist "I love you, and there's nothing you can do about it?" Who can resist that?

We need to move in those directions that allow us to explore: What is it we can agree about? What is it that we can come together on? I think there's a much wider landscape of that kind of thing than there is this divisive stuff, and there are elements in our society that really want us to be at each other's throats. We're looking at a dichotomy. It's either/or, when the question to ask is "What else is possible?"

This is what I'm screaming: The song can be a bridge. I don't have to agree with you to treat you with respect! Where did this thing come from where, if I don't agree with you, you're the enemy? What is that? It's terrible! What happened to honest discourse and agreeing to disagree? 

When you call someone an enemy, you're actually looking in a mirror. That's a hard concept to deal with because you're like, "Damn, that thing is ugly." That's you, bro! That's you, sister!

I don't think pandemic-era albums will age well, but I believe yours will be an exception. You're responding to the broader sense of quietude, and you picked songs that have perennial value.

I was like: Let me do what I was put on this earth to do. Let me do what my assignment is at this moment, which is to put this baby out in the world and walk away. It's none of my business what happens to this record. I was obedient, even though it hurt. Even though it was painful. Even though it made me face some things about myself that I didn't like. Even though it made me face my loneliness.

I was thinking of going track-by-track and exploring each song through the lens of your grief. But by the same token, I'm thinking "Maybe all the information is embedded in the music. You either get it or you don't." Where does your thinking fall on that?

I would say to just enter the space with the idea of time traveling in your head. That's all. The title allows you to go where you will. If it doesn't pull you into the space of memory, then fine. You go on to the next track. Of course, I came from the world of LPs where the order of the songs was an attempt to tell a story within the project. I still have that in my mind, but it's the backstory. And it's my backstory.

I've done lots of "concept records" in my time. A tribute to a composer. A tribute to an artist. All the songs were written by blah-blah-blah. In this project, I'm wanting to sort of put that down. Put down that idea of it being so rigid and just letting the traveling through time be the concept, if there is one.

Like, "Moon River." You couldn't think of a more standard repertoire piece in the American songbook. There isn't one that has been more recorded. It's the standard of standards. But every time I hear that song, it takes me to someplace that only I can go. I don't know if anyone else can go there. 

"Two drifters off to see the world:" that's my husband and me. "There's such a lot of world to see / We're after the same rainbow's end, waiting 'round the bend:" Everybody gets to die. Everybody. If there can be one unifying fact, that's it. "Waiting 'round the bend / My huckleberry friend." He was a friend; he was a lover; he was a confidante. He was my everything. Forty years! My god.

Even though I loved the song before, I'm in bed with the song now, because it's a comfort to me. I don't care that everybody else in the world did it. It's now mine. I claim it as my anthem love song to my spirit, to my situation, and it brings me joy. That's the only reason.

I don't think you or anyone else is the official spokesperson for grief or mental health. That said, what are your coping strategies?

One thing I'm trying to position myself as with my podcast is the anti-therapist. I don't want to be the therapist. I don't want to be the one who gives you advice. Frankly, I'm still figuring this thing out myself, so I can't really tell you what will work. I can only tell you what I'm doing, and that's that I am container gardening. That's finding containers large, small, medium-sized, decorative, plain, to put your grief in. Spaces that allow you to honor it and honor your beloved.

The small things you do to honor the space this grief is occupying is really important. It could be something as simple as baking a cake intentionally with your loved one in mind and thinking about, when you add the sugar, how sweet they were and how wonderful it was for them to be in your life. Adding the salt for the tears, the baking powder… if you're into cooking, you'll know what I'm talking about. 

I can't boil water without starting a house fire, but as you can see over Zoom, I'm into succulents. I've noticed that when you leave them in the little plastic container from the store, they stall out and look sad, but if you repot them, it doesn't take them long to thrive.

This is what I've figured out, and I haven't even figured it all the way out: When you tend to your grief as in a succulent, after some time, you may need an even bigger pot. Because guess what? Seeds of joy, seeds of expansion, seeds of curiosity start to blossom in that space, and it can no longer be contained.

Jen Shyu On New Album 'Zero Grasses: Ritual For The Losses,' Overcoming Grief & Discrimination In Enlightened Spaces

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GRAMMY SoundChecks With Gavin DeGraw

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

On Aug. 28 Nashville Chapter GRAMMY U members took part in GRAMMY SoundChecks with Gavin DeGraw. Approximately 30 students gathered at music venue City Hall and watched DeGraw play through some of the singles from earlier in his career along with "Cheated On Me" from his latest self-titled album.

In between songs, DeGraw conducted a question-and-answer session and inquired about the talents and goals of the students in attendance. He gave inside tips to the musicians present on how to make it in the industry and made sure that every question was answered before moving onto the next song.

 

Juan Gabriel named 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person Of The Year

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Juan Gabriel named 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person Of The Year

Annual star-studded gala slated for Nov. 4 in Las Vegas during 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Week celebration

GRAMMYs/May 15, 2017 - 01:36 pm

 GRAMMY.com

 Internationally renowned singer/songwriter/performer Juan Gabriel will be celebrated as the 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year, it was announced today by The Latin Recording Academy. Juan Gabriel, chosen for his professional accomplishments as well as his commitment to philanthropic efforts, will be recognized at a star-studded concert and black tie dinner on Nov. 4 at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nev. 

The "Celebration with Juan Gabriel" gala will be one of the most prestigious events held during Latin GRAMMY week, a celebration that culminates with the 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Awards ceremony. The milestone telecast will be held at Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas on Nov. 5 and will be broadcast live on the Univision Television Network at 8 p.m. Eastern/7 p.m. Central. 

"As we celebrate this momentous decade of the Latin GRAMMYs, The Latin Recording Academy and its Board of Trustees take great pride in recognizing Juan Gabriel as an extraordinary entertainer who never has forgotten his roots, while at the same time having a global impact," said Latin Recording Academy President Gabriel Abaroa. "His influence on the music and culture of our era has been tremendous, and we welcome this opportunity to pay a fitting tribute to a voice that strongly resonates within our community.

Over the course of his 30-year career, Juan Gabriel has sold more than 100 million albums and has performed to sold-out audiences throughout the world. He has produced more than 100 albums for more than 50 artists including Paul Anka, Lola Beltran, Rocío Dúrcal, and Lucha Villa among many others. Additionally, Juan Gabriel has written more than 1,500 songs, which have been covered by such artists as Marc Anthony, Raúl Di Blasio, Ana Gabriel, Angelica María, Lucia Mendez, Estela Nuñez, and Son Del Son. In 1986, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley declared Oct. 5 "The Day of Juan Gabriel." The '90s saw his induction into Billboard's Latin Music Hall of Fame and he joined La Opinion's Tributo Nacional Lifetime Achievement Award recipients list. 

At the age of 13, Juan Gabriel was already writing his own songs and in 1971 recorded his first hit, "No Tengo Dinero," which landed him a recording contract with RCA. Over the next 14 years, he established himself as Mexico's leading singer/songwriter, composing in diverse styles such as rancheras, ballads, pop, disco, and mariachi, which resulted in an incredible list of hits ("Hasta Que Te Conocí," "Siempre En Mi Mente," "Querida," "Inocente Pobre Amigo," "Abrázame Muy Fuerte," "Amor Eterno," "El Noa Noa," and "Insensible") not only for himself  but for many leading Latin artists. In 1990, Juan Gabriel became the only non-classical singer/songwriter to perform at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and the album release of that concert, Juan Gabriel En Vivo Desde El Palacio De Bellas Artes, broke sales records and established his iconic status. 

After a hiatus from recording, Juan Gabriel released such albums as Gracias Por Esperar, Juntos Otra Vez, Abrázame Muy Fuerte, Los Gabriel…Para Ti, Juan Gabriel Con La Banda…El Recodo, and El Mexico Que Se Nos Fue, which were all certified gold and/or platinum by the RIAA. In 1996, to commemorate his 25th anniversary in the music industry, BMG released a retrospective set of CDs entitled 25 Aniversario, Solos, Duetos, y Versiones Especiales, comprised appropriately of 25 discs.   

In addition to his numerous accolades and career successes, Juan Gabriel has been a compassionate and generous philanthropist. He has donated all proceeds from approximately 10 performances a year to his favorite children's foster homes, and proceeds from fan photo-ops go to support Mexican orphans. In 1987, he founded Semjase, an orphanage for approximately 120 children, which also serves as a music school with music, recreation and video game rooms. Today, he continues to personally fund the school he opened more than 22 years ago.   

Juan Gabriel will have the distinction of becoming the 10th Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year honoree, and joins a list of artists such as Gloria Estefan, Gilberto Gil, Juan Luis Guerra, Julio Iglesias, Ricky Martin, and Carlos Santana among others who have been recognized. 

For information on purchasing tickets or tables to The Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year tribute to Juan Gabriel, please contact The Latin Recording Academy ticketing office at 310.314.8281 or ticketing@grammy.com.

Set List Bonus: Bumbershoot 2013
Grizzled Mighty perform at Bumbershoot on Sept. 1

Photo: The Recording Academy

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Set List Bonus: Bumbershoot 2013

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 04:22 am

Welcome to The Set List. Here you'll find the latest concert recaps for many of your favorite, or maybe not so favorite, artists. Our bloggers will do their best to provide you with every detail of the show, from which songs were on the set list to what the artist was wearing to which out-of-control fan made a scene. Hey, it'll be like you were there. And if you like what you read, we'll even let you know where you can catch the artist on tour. Feel free to drop us a comment and let us know your concert experience. Oh, and rock on.

By Alexa Zaske
Seattle

This past Labor Day weekend meant one thing for many folks in Seattle: Bumbershoot, a three-decade-old music and arts event that consumed the area surrounding the Space Needle from Aug. 31–Sept. 2. Amid attendees wandering around dressed as zombies and participating in festival-planned flash mobs to Michael Jackson's "Thriller," this year the focus was on music from the Pacific Northwest region — from the soulful sounds of Allen Stone and legendary female rockers Heart, to the highly-awaited return of Death Cab For Cutie performing their 2003 hit album Transatlanticism in its entirety.

The festival started off on day one with performances by synth-pop group the Flavr Blue, hip-hop artist Grynch, rapper Nacho Picasso, psychedelic pop group Beat Connection, lively rapper/writer George Watsky, hip-hop group the Physics, and (my personal favorite), punk/dance band !!! (Chk Chk Chk). Also performing on day one was Seattle folk singer/songwriter Kris Orlowski, who was accompanied by the Passenger String Quartet. As always, Orlowski's songs were catchy and endearing yet brilliant and honest.

Day one came to a scorching finale with a full set from GRAMMY-nominated rock group Heart. Kicking off with their Top 20 hit "Barracuda," the set spanned three decades of songs, including "Heartless," "Magic Man" and "What About Love?" It became a gathering of Seattle rock greats when, during Heart's final song, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready joined for 1976's "Crazy On You."

Day two got off to an early start with performances from eccentric Seattle group Kithkin and Seattle ladies Mary Lambert and Shelby Earl, who were accompanied by the band Le Wrens. My highlight of the day was the Grizzled Mighty — a duo with a bigger sound than most family sized bands. Drummer Whitney Petty, whose stage presence and skills make for an exciting performance, was balanced out by the easy listening of guitarist and lead singer Ryan Granger.

Then the long-awaited moment finally fell upon Seattle when, after wrapping a long-awaited tour with the Postal Service, singer/songwriter Ben Gibbard returned to Seattle to represent another great success of the Pacific Northwest — Death Cab For Cutie. The band celebrated the 10-year anniversary of their album Transatlanticism by performing it from front to back. While a majority of attendees opted to watch the set from an air-conditioned arena, some of us recognized the uniqueness of this experience and enjoyed the entire set lying in the grass where the entire performance was streamed. 

Monday was the day for soul and folk. Local blues/R&B group Hot Bodies In Motion have been making their way through the Seattle scene with songs such as "Old Habits," "That Darkness" and "The Pulse." Their set was lively and enticing to people who have seen them multiple times or never at all.

My other highlights of the festival included the Maldives, who delivered a fun performance with the perfect amount of satirical humor and folk. They represent the increasing number of Pacific Northwest bands who consist of many members playing different sounds while still managing to stay cohesive and simple. I embraced the return of folk/pop duo Ivan & Alyosha with open arms and later closed my festival experience with local favorite Stone.

For music fans in Seattle and beyond, the annual Bumbershoot festival is a must-attend.

(Alexa Zaske is the Chapter Assistant for The Recording Academy Pacific Northwest Chapter. She's a music enthusiast and obsessed with the local Seattle scene.)

Neil Portnow Addresses Diversity & Inclusion, Looks Ahead During Speech At 2019 GRAMMYs

Neil Portnow and Jimmy Jam

Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images

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Neil Portnow Addresses Diversity & Inclusion, Looks Ahead During Speech At 2019 GRAMMYs

Jimmy Jam helps celebrate the outgoing President/CEO of the Recording Academy on the 61st GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Feb 11, 2019 - 10:58 am

As Neil Portnow's tenure as Recording Academy President/CEO draws to its end, five-time GRAMMY winner Jimmy Jam paid tribute to his friend and walked us through a brief overview of some of the Academy's major recent achievements, including the invaluable work of MusiCares, the GRAMMY Museum, Advocacy and more.

Portnow delivered a brief speech, acknowledging the need to continue to focus on issues of diversity and inclusion in the music industry. He also seized the golden opportunity to say the words he's always wanted to say on the GRAMMY stage, saying, "I'd like to thank the Academy," showing his gratitude and respect for the staff, elected leaders and music community he's worked with during his career at the Recording Academy. "We can be so proud of what we’ve all accomplished together," Portnow added.

"As I finish out my term leading this great organization, my heart and soul are filled with gratitude, pride, for the opportunity and unequal experience," he continued. "Please know that my commitment to all the good that we do will carry on as we turn the page on the next chapter of the storied history of this phenomenal institution."

Full Winners List: 61st GRAMMY Awards