meta-scriptJoey Alexander On The Primacy Of The Blues, Building Tunes To Last & His New Single, "Under The Sun" | GRAMMY.com
Joey Alexander

Joey Alexander

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Joey Alexander On The Primacy Of The Blues, Building Tunes To Last & His New Single, "Under The Sun"

In an exclusive premiere with GRAMMY.com, Joey Alexander shares his new single, "Under The Sun," and discusses its inspiration from the Bible and social justice

GRAMMYs/Apr 22, 2021 - 05:00 pm

Unlike most condiments, salt figures heavily in the Bible. It symbolizes friendship. It means preservation. Lot's wife became a pillar of it. Jesus' salt illustration on the Mount is now an idiom. "Let your words be seasoned with salt," Paul said in Colossians, essentially meaning "Speak gracefully and perceptively." While only 17, Joey Alexander is aware of salt's religious and historical connotations—and his expressions would make the Apostle proud.

"I want my music to reflect this sentiment and have a lasting impression," the thrice-GRAMMY-nominated pianist tells GRAMMY.com about his single "SALT," which dropped in mid-March. "The blues is that thing that preserves just like salt—that has inspired us in our ups and downs. The blues give us that reassurance that everything is going to be OK. Even though we are trampled under the ugliness of the world, we can still hold on to hope. That's what I believe."

And what of his latest tune, "Under The Sun"? Isn't that title from Ecclesiastes? "Yeah!" Alexander replies, flashing a grin. "Oh, man! You know your stuff!"

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"Under The Sun" marks the second single Alexander is releasing this spring via Verve Records and premieres above exclusively via GRAMMY.com. ("Summer Rising" will conclude the trilogy on May 28.) The tune, which Alexander wrote after the murder of George Floyd ignited protests in New York City, sounds appropriately golden-hued and ascendant. Therein, he wrote about the universal human family—one bound by forces racial disharmony can't destroy.

Alexander opened up to GRAMMY.com over Zoom about the significance of salt, the spiritual intent of his music and this radiant new tune with bassist Daniel Winshall and drummer Tyson D. Jackson.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I dig your tune "SALT." You've mentioned the title is symbolic of the blues.

It can mean different things to different people. Even what we eat. The word "salad," during Roman times, was derived from the word "salt" for salted vegetables. I guess you might have heard that before.

No, never.

Oh, really! Yeah, man. It's kind of interesting to really look at what we eat. And it's in music as well. Blues is such an essential part of jazz and in other genres of music. You find it in so many genres of music. To me, most of them lead back to the blues. And of course, there are different interpretations of playing the blues. So, I have my interpretation in my composition "SALT."

Gilad Hekselman really added some fantastic color on the guitar to the track. To have a sense of completeness, I just had to have Gilad perform on the song. He's truly one of the best. His projection of the guitar is remarkable. Also, how he kind of resounds the rock element is very cool. I never had that element before, until this song came out.

Salt was also inspired by words from the Book of Matthew that we are the salt of the earth. It's a [invitation] to do good to others. I want my music to reflect this sentiment and have a lasting impression. The blues is that thing that preserves just like salt—that has inspired us in our ups and downs. The blues give us that reassurance that everything is going to be OK. Even though we are trampled under the ugliness of the world, we can still hold on to hope. That's what I believe.

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Right. I feel like songs based on blues forms are preserved. They tend to weather fads and trends.

But in this song, I wanted to create a sense of space in the way it is collective. I was trying to create room for other musicians to jump in and do their thing [chuckles], whatever that is. To share their talent and be themselves.

Also, I wanted to have really carefully written songs. "SALT" has that strong melody, which I was striving for. I was glad that Jaleel and Gilad played in unison and sounded so strong. When I heard it back, I was like "Wow." I never would have imagined that the song would sound that way; it was indescribable.

When you first listened to it, what came to your mind? I'm curious.

Something craggy and historical. Something that's been around for a long time. Like I'm looking at an old village church or a cave or something.

That's great, man. You use that as your tool—your imagination. I like that. I like to hear from other people who have their own perspectives. As much as I could share with you about what I felt writing the song, it's always great to hear other peoples' thoughts. It's really important to me.

As a composer, it's all about strengthening the melody and rhythm. When the band comes in, it's very ... not elusive, but it's very simple. The rhythm kind of sticks to you, right, when you hear it? I think Gilad also added some of the notes to the vamp, which was wonderful. He put that in place. Some songs I like to start with a vamp. Whenever I feel like it comes to my head, I play it. It happens in the moment sometimes.

Regarding the spiritual content of the song, it seems like you're pretty open about your beliefs.

Of course, I have things that I believe in. We all have things that we hold on to. Do you know what I'm saying? Whether it's music or faith. Of course, my music is all there in faith and holding on to the things that we believe.

I'm always about being thankful and always thanking God for all the things that happen in my life. That's the main point to me. To show love and empathy to people around me. My friends and I always pray before we start a performance, just to remember why we're there. To be a vessel to others. 

Even though things aren't going the way you expect them to be, there are moments where you need to hold your head up, and along the way, you find hope. That's what the song is about: finding life and togetherness. I hope people feel that. This is my message about "SALT."

It's interesting the way you came up in your early teens. Usually, jazz musicians go through the whole curriculum and when success strikes, it's a lot later in life.

Yeah. It just so happened that I started earlier than some other musicians. You might have known some musicians who start early, in their teens, too. I'm not unique, I'm sure. Some musicians started just as early as me.

True, but you had a public profile, too.

I guess many musicians haven't experienced that at a young age. Well, I can say I'm thankful for all the things that have happened to me. Even when I got my first nomination, which was totally out of the blue, I wouldn't have thought that I would have my first album be in that category. I was nominated for Best Instrumental Album, and nonetheless, Best Improvised Jazz Solo.

Do you remember who else was in the running when you were nominated?

I can remember two people who were on the list. They were some of my favorite musicians. Christian McBride and John Scofield

Were you able to meet some of those older masters?

No, I only met Herbie Hancock at the GRAMMYs.

Nice. What was your impression of the man?

It was great meeting Herbie. He didn't say too much, I was eight at that time. He was like, "You really want to be here?" He said something like that and I said "I'm playing 'Watermelon Man.'" He thought I could play and he said, "Keep doing it" and "Don't stop."

Right on.

Yeah, it was pretty inspiring just to have those words come from someone who's been in the music world for a long time.

What can you share about "Under the Sun"?

It has ties to the times that we live in. The pandemic really hit us badly as musicians, and then I saw people marching on the streets where I live in Union Square in New York City. A lot of things have happened during the time I wrote this piece. But I think the positive side is that people of all colors stood up. 

The title is from Ecclesiastes, yeah?

Yeah. Oh, man! You know your stuff. That is one of the inspirations. Actually, I wrote this during summer 2020 after witnessing the protests across the country. I also was inspired by Bruce Lee's interview when he was asked, "What do you think of yourself?" His only answer was, "I like to think of myself as a human being." Under the sky, we are all one family. It just happens that we are all different and we have to accept our differences. And this is how this song comes in.

What do you have up your sleeve for when things return to semi-normal?

As of now, I have one show coming up in Cape May, which is a festival called Exit Zero Jazz Festival and one in June at Saratoga Jazz Festival. I'm always praying and looking forward to being back traveling with my friends.

For now, I'm composing music, because it's what I love. I'm filling in the days with writing new works, trying to keep active. I'm thankful that I'm here with my family in New York City enjoying the weather. "Summer Rising" is my next single and that is about continuing to grow and awakening.

Norah Jones On Her Two-Decade Evolution, Channeling Chris Cornell & Her First-Ever Live Album, ''Til We Meet Again'

Sade in 1985
Sade Adu poses in Chicago in 1985.

Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

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8 Ways Sade's 'Diamond Life' Album Redefined '80s Music & Influenced Culture

As Sade's masterpiece 'Diamond Life' turns 40, see how the group's debut pushed R&B forward and introduced them as beloved elusive stars.

GRAMMYs/Jul 16, 2024 - 04:34 pm

"I only make records when I feel I have something to say," Sade Adu asserted in 2010 upon the highly anticipated release of Sade's GRAMMY-winning Soldier of Love album, which arrived after a 10-year hiatus. "I'm not interested in releasing music just for the sake of selling something. Sade is not a brand."

This lifetime of dedication toward achieving musical excellence helped Sade — vocalist Adu, bassist Paul S. Denman, keyboardist Andrew Hale, and guitarist/saxophonist Stuart Matthewman — gain prominence in the mid-80s, also garnering enormous respect from fans, critics, and peers alike. Formed in 1982, the English band is one of the few acts that can still be met with a hungry audience after disappearing from the spotlight for multiple years.

In an industry where churning out a new body of work is expected every couple of years, the four meticulous members of Sade move on their own time, putting out a mere six studio albums since 1984. Every project becomes more exquisite than the last, but it all began 40 years ago with Sade's illustrious debut album, Diamond Life. Ubiquitous hits like "Smooth Operator" and "Your Love Is King" appealed to listeners young and old — offering a unique blend of R&B, jazz, soul, funk, and pop that birthed a new sound and forced the industry to take notes from the jump.

As Sade's Diamond Life celebrates a milestone anniversary, here's a look at how the album helped push R&B forward, and why it's just as relevant today.

It Helped Set Off The "Quiet Storm" Craze

By mid-1984, Michael Jackson, was riding high off of winning the most GRAMMYs in a single night (including Album Of The Year) for his blockbuster album Thriller, Madonna celebrated her first top 10 hit with "Borderline," and Prince's Purple Rain was just days away from its theatrical release. Duran Duran, Culture Club, Billy Idol, and the Police were mainstays, while "blue-eyed soul" in particular had also hit an all-time high thanks to Hall and Oates, Wham, Simply Red, and others. What's more, many Black artists like Lionel Richie and Whitney Houston opted for more of a pop sound to appeal to broader audiences during MTV's golden era. 

Diamond Life was refreshing at the time, as it fully embraced soul and R&B. The album offered a chic sophistication amid the synth-heavy pop and rock music that ruled the charts.

Singles like "Your Love Is King" and "Smooth Operator" introduced jazz elements into mainstream radio. In turn, Sade helped usher in the "quiet storm" genre — R&B music at its core, with strong undertones of jazz for an ultra-smooth sound. Sade and Diamond Life also laid some of the groundwork for neo-soul, which saw a surge in the '90s à la Lauryn Hill, Maxwell, and Erykah Badu.

It Made GRAMMY History

In the 65-year history of the GRAMMYs, a small number of Nigerian artists, including Burna Boy and Tems, have won a golden gramophone. In 1986, a then 27-year-old Sade Adu made history as the first-ever Nigerian-born artist to win a GRAMMY when she and her band was crowned Best New Artist at the 29th GRAMMYs. Still, Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg had to accept the award on Sade's behalf — signaling Adu's elusive nature as she rarely attends industry events or grants interviews.

Since then, Sade has gone on to earn three more GRAMMYs, including Best Pop Vocal Album in 2001 for their fifth studio album, Lovers Rock. The win signified their staying power in the new millennium.

It Birthed The Band's Signature Song…

While Diamond Life spawned timeless hits like "Your Love Is King" and "Hang On to Your Love," "Smooth Operator" became the album's highest-charting single — and remains the most iconic song in their catalog. The seductive track about a cunning two-timer propelled the band into international stardom: "Smooth Operator" skyrocketed to No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and hit No. 1 on the Adult Contemporary chart.

Even non-Sade fans can identify "Smooth Operator" in an instant, from Adu's unmistakable vocals to that now-iconic instrumental saxophone solo. As of press time, it boasts over 400 million Spotify streams alone, and has remained a set list staple across every one of Sade's tours.

…And It Houses Underrated Gems

"Smooth Operator" may be Sade's commercial classic, but deep cuts like "Frankie's First Affair," "Cherry Pie," and "I Will Be Your Friend" are fan favorites that embody the band's heart and soul.

"Frankie's First Affair" offers a surprisingly enchanting take on infidelity: "Frankie, didn't I tell you, you've got the world in the palm of your hand/ Frankie, didn't I tell you they're running at your command." And, it's impossible to resist the funky groove that carries standout track "Cherry Pie," which served as a catalyst for some of Sade's later, more dance-oriented hits, including "Never As Good As the First Time" and "Paradise." Some of Sade's most poignant statements about lost love, including "Somebody Already Broke My Heart" from 2000's Lovers Rock, can be traced back to "Cherry Pie."

Diamond Life's penultimate song, "I Will Be Your Friend," offers both solace and companionship — another recurring theme throughout Sade's music, from 1988's "Keep Looking" to 2010's "In Another Time."

It Was The Best-Selling Debut Album By A British Female Singer For More Than Two Decades

Sade has sold tens of millions of albums worldwide, but Diamond Life remains the band's most commercially successful LP with over 7 million copies sold. Most of Sade's other platinum-selling LPs, including Diamond Life's follow-up, 1985's Promise, boast sales between four and six million copies.

The 7 million feat helped Sade set the record for best-selling debut album by a British female singer. She held the title for nearly 25 years until Leona Lewis' 2008 album Spirit, which has sold over 8 million copies globally.

It Introduced Sade Adu As A Style Icon

When we first met Adu, her signature aesthetic consisted of a long, slicked-back ponytail, red lip, and gold hoops. Sade's impeccable style is front and center in early videos like "When Am I Going to Make a Living," in which she sports an all-white ensemble paired with a pale gray, ankle-length trench coat and loafers.

Adu rocked the model off-duty style long before it became a trend. Her oversized blazers, classic trousers, and head-to-toe denim looks were as effortless as they were chic and runway-ready — proving that less was more amid the decade of excess.

"It's now so acceptable to be wacky and have hair that goes in 101 directions and has several colours, and trendy, wacky clothes have become so acceptable that they're… conventional," Adu, who briefly worked as a fashion designer and model before pursuing music, told Rolling Stone in 1985. "I don't like looking outrageous. I don't want to look like everybody else."

It Shined A Light On Larger Societal Issues

While most of Diamond Life leans into love's ebbs and flows, a handful of tunes deal with financial strife coupled with a dose of optimism, as evidenced by "When Am I Going to Make a Living" and "Sally." The latter song characterizes the Salvation Army as a young charitable woman: "So put your hands together for Sally/ She's the one who cared for him/ Put your hands together for Sally/ She was there when his luck was running thin."

Meanwhile, Adu, a then-starving artist, scribbled down portions of "When Am I Going to Make a Living" on the back of her cleaning ticket. The soul-stirring "We are hungry, but we won't give in" refrain emerges as a powerful mantra in the face of adversity and still holds relevance in 2024. Similar themes appear throughout Sade's later work, including unemployment ("Feel No Pain"), unwanted pregnancy ("Tar Baby"), survival ("Jezebel"), prejudice ("Immigrant"), and injustice ("Slave Song").

Diamond Life closer "Why Can't We Live Together" is a well-done cover of Timmy Thomas' 1972 hit about the staggering Vietnam War deaths. The band wisely doesn't veer too far from the original recording, but Adu's distinctive contralto voice brings a haunting quality that's reminiscent of Billie Holiday.

It Ignited The Public's Ongoing Fascination With Sade Adu

Since 1984, Sade has only released six studio albums, and a remarkable 14 years have passed since the group's last offering, 2010's Soldier of Love. Ironically, that scarcity — both in terms of music and access to the artist — has actually added to Adu's appeal. Case in point: Sade's sold-out Soldier of Love Tour grossed over $50 million in 2011, and the band still brings in close to 14 million monthly listeners on Spotify.

Adu's striking beauty, mysterious persona, and knack for letting her music do all the talking has earned the admiration of her peers across genres and generations. Everyone from Beyoncé to Kanye West to Snoop Dogg have sung her praises. Drake even has two portrait-style tattoos of the singer on his torso. Prince reportedly described 1988's "Love Is Stronger Than Pride" as "one of the most beautiful songs ever." Metalheads Chino Moreno of the Deftones and Greg Puciato of the Dillinger Escape Plan have also cited Adu as inspiration — showing that her influence runs far and wide.

In 2022, reports circulated that Sade was recording new music at Miraval Studios in France. But upon Diamond Life's 40th anniversary, "Flower of the Universe" and "The Big Unknown" from the respective soundtracks to 2018 films A Wrinkle in Time and Widows stand as Sade's latest releases.

Whether fans get new music anytime soon remains to be seen, but the impressive repertoire of Adu, Denman, Hale, and Matthewman is one that aims to be truth-seeking and inspiring while exploring life's peaks and valleys. Diamond Life in particular holds up as one of the purest representations of the group's creative legacy, both commercially and musically. 

From quadruple platinum status to resonating with several generations, Diamond Life will forever stand as a remarkable debut — one that continues to influence music in a multitude of ways.

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Meshell Ndegeocello
Meshell Ndegeocello accepts the GRAMMY for Best Alternative Jazz Album 'The Omnichord Real Book' onstage during the 66th GRAMMY Awards

Photo: Amy Sussman/Getty Images

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Meshell Ndegeocello Wins The First-Ever GRAMMY For Best Alternative Jazz Album At The 2024 GRAMMYs

Meshell Ndegeocello won the first-ever GRAMMY for Best Alternative Jazz Album. Ndegeocello bested Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily; Louis Cole; Kurt Elling, Charlie Hunter and SuperBlue; and Cory Henry.

GRAMMYs/Feb 4, 2024 - 11:14 pm

Meshell Ndegeocello won the first-ever GRAMMY for Best Alternative Jazz Album at the 2024 GRAMMYs.

The album bested Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily's Love in Exile; Louis Cole's Quality Over Opinion; Kurt Elling, Charlie Hunter and SuperBlue's SuperBlue: The Iridescent Spree; and Cory Henry's Live at the Piano.

In her acceptance speech, the two-time GRAMMY winner and 12-time nominee thanked Don Was, the president of Blue Note Records, as well as other colleagues and loved ones — including her two sons. “I hope I haven’t forgotten anybody,” Ndegeocello graciously said at the end, and invoked an elder of the music: “Oliver Lake, this is for you.”

Keep watching this space for more information about the 2024 GRAMMYs!

A Year In Alternative Jazz: 10 Albums To Understand The New GRAMMYs Category

Linda May Han Oh
Linda May Han Oh

Photo: Shervin Lainez

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A Year In Alternative Jazz: 10 Albums To Understand The New GRAMMYs Category

"Alternative jazz" may not be a bandied-about term in the jazz world, but it's a helpful lens to view the "genre-blending, envelope-pushing hybrid" that defines a new category at the 2024 GRAMMYs. Here are 10 albums from 2023 that rise to this definition.

GRAMMYs/Jan 9, 2024 - 02:47 pm

What, exactly, is "alternative jazz"? After that new category was announced ahead of the 2024 GRAMMYs nominations, inquiring minds wanted to know. The "alternative" descriptor is usually tied to rock, pop or dance — not typically jazz, which gets qualifiers like "out" or "avant-garde."

However, the introduction of the Best Alternative Jazz Album category does shoehorn anything into the lexicon. Rather, it commensurately clarifies and expands the boundaries of this global artform.

According to the Recording Academy, alternative jazz "may be defined as a genre-blending, envelope-pushing hybrid that mixes jazz (improvisation, interaction, harmony, rhythm, arrangements, composition, and style) with other genres… it may also include the contemporary production techniques/instrumentation associated with other genres."

And the 2024 GRAMMY nominees for Best Alternative Jazz Album live up to this dictum: Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily's Love in Exile; Louis Cole's Quality Over Opinion; Kurt Elling, Charlie Hunter and SuperBlue's SuperBlue: The Iridescent Spree; Cory Henry's Live at the Piano; and Meshell Ndegeocello's The Omnichord Real Book.

Sure, these were the standard bearers of alternative jazz over the past year and change — as far as Recording Academy Membership is concerned. But these are only five albums; they amount to a cross section. With that in mind, read on for 10 additional albums from 2023 that fall under the umbrella of alternative jazz.

Allison Miller - Rivers in Our Veins

The supple and innovative drummer and composer Allison Miller often works in highly cerebral, conceptual spaces. After all, her last suite, Rivers in Our Veins, involves a jazz band, three dancers and video projections.

Therein, Miller chose one of the most universal themes out there: how rivers shape our lives and communities, and how we must act as their stewards. Featuring violinist Jenny Scheinman, trumpeter Jason Palmer, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, keyboardist and accordionist Carmen Staff, and upright bassist Todd SickafooseRivers in Our Veins homes in on the James, Delaware, Potomac, Hudson, and Susquehanna.

And just as these eastern U.S. waterways serve all walks of life, Rivers in Our Veins defies category. And it also blurs two crucial aspects of Miller's life and career.

"I get to marry my environmentalism and my activism with music," she told District Fray. "And it's still growing!

M.E.B. - That You Not Dare To Forget

The Prince of Darkness may have slipped away 32 years ago, but he's felt eerily omnipresent in the evolution of this music ever since.

In M.E.B. or "Miles Electric Band," an ensemble of Davis alumni and disciples underscore his unyielding spirit with That You Not Dare to Forget. The lineup is staggering: bassists Ron Carter, Marcus Miller, and Stanley Clarke; saxophonist Donald Harrison, guitarist John Scofield, a host of others.

How does That You Not Dare To Forget satisfy the definition of alternative jazz? Because like Davis' abstracted masterpieces, like Bitches Brew, On the Corner and the like, the music is amoebic, resistant to pigeonholing.

Indeed, tunes like "Hail to the Real Chief" and "Bitches are Back" function as scratchy funk or psychedelic soul as much as they do the J-word, which Davis hated vociferously.

And above all, they're idiosyncratic to the bone — just as the big guy was, every second of his life and career.

Art Ensemble of Chicago - Sixth Decade - from Paris to Paris

The nuances and multiplicities of the Art Ensemble of Chicago cannot be summed up in a blurb: that's where books like Message to Our Folks and A Power Stronger Than Itself — about the AACM — come in.

But if you want an entryway into this bastion of creative improvisational music — that, unlike The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles boxed set, isn't 18-plus hours long — Sixth Decade - from Paris to Paris will do in a pinch.

Recorded just a month before the pandemic struck, The Sixth Decade is a captivating looking-glass into this collective as it stands, with fearless co-founder Roscoe Mitchell flanked by younger leading lights, like Nicole Mitchell and Moor Mother.

Potent and urgent, engaging the heart as much as the cerebrum, this music sees the Art Ensemble still charting their course into the outer reaches. Here's to their next six decades.

Theo Croker - By The Way

By The Way may not be an album proper, but it's still an exemplar of alternative jazz.

The five-track EP finds outstanding trumpeter, vocalist, producer, and composer Croker revisiting tunes from across his discography, with UK singer/songwriter Ego Ella May weaving the proceedings with her supple, enveloping vocals.

Compositions like "Slowly" and "If I Could I Would" seem to hang just outside the reaches of jazz; it pulls on strings of neo soul and silky, progressive R&B.

Even the music video for "Slowly" is quietly innovative: in AI's breakthrough year, machine learning made beautifully, cosmically odd visuals for that percolating highlight.

Michael Blake - Dance of the Mystic Bliss

Even a cursory examination of Dance of the Mystic Bliss reveals it to be Pandora's box.

First off: revered tenor and soprano saxophonist Michael Blake's CV runs deep, from his lasting impression in New York's downtown scene to his legacy in John Lurie's Lounge Lizards.

And his new album is steeped in the long and storied history of jazz and strings, as well as Brazilian music and the sting of grief — Blake's mother's 2018 passing looms heavy in tunes like "Merle the Pearl." 

"Sure, for me, it's all about my mom, and there will be some things that were triggered. But when you're listening to it, you're going to have a completely different experience," Blake told LondonJazz in 2023.

"That's what I love about instrumental music," he continued. "That's what's so great about how jazz can transcend to this unbelievable spiritual level." Indeed, Dance of the Mystic Bliss can be communed with, with or without context, going in familiar or cold.

And that tends to be the instrumental music that truly lasts — the kind that gives you a cornucopia of references and sensations, either way.

Dinner Party - Enigmatic Society

Dinner Party's self-titled debut EP, from 2020 — and its attendant remix that year, Dinner Party: Dessert — introduced a mightily enticing supergroup to the world: Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin, and 9th Wonder.

While the magnitude of talent there is unquestionable, the quartet were still finding their footing; when mixing potent Black American genres in a stew, sometimes the strong flavors can cancel each other out.

Enigmatic Society, their debut album, is a relaxed and concise triumph; each man has figured out how he can act as a quadrant for the whole.

And just as guests like Herbie Hancock and Snoop Dogg elevated Dinner Party: Dessert, colleagues like Phoelix and Ant Clemons ride this wave without disturbing its flow.

Wadada Leo Smith & Orange Wave Electric - Fire Illuminations

The octogenarian tumpeter, multi-instrumentalist and composer Wadada Leo Smith is a standard-bearer of the subset of jazz we call "creative music." And by the weighty, teeming sound of Fire Illuminations, it's clear he's not through surprising us.

Therein, Smith debuts his nine-piece Orange Wave Electric ensemble, which features three guitarists (Nels Cline, Brandon Ross, Lamar Smith) and two electric bassists (Bill Laswell and Melvin Gibbs).

In characteristically sagelike fashion, Smith described Fire Illuminations as "a ceremonial space where one's hearts and conscious can embrace for a brief period of unconditioned love where the artist and their music with the active observer becomes united."

And if you zoom in from that beatific view, you get a majestic slab of psychedelic hard rock — with dancing rhythms, guitar fireworks and Smith zigzagging across the canvas like Miles. 

Henry Threadgill - The Other One

Saxophonist, flutist and composer Henry Threadgill composed The Other One for the late, great Milfred Graves, the percussionist with a 360 degree vantage of the pulse of his instrument and how it related to heart, breath and hands.

If that sounds like a mouthful, this is a cerebral, sprawling and multifarious space: The Other One itself consists of one three-movement piece (titled Of Valence) and is part of a larger multimedia work.

To risk oversimplification, though, The Other One is a terrific example of where "jazz" and "classical" melt as helpful descriptors, and flow into each other like molten gold.

If you're skeptical of the limits and constraints of these hegemonic worlds, let Threadgill and his creative-music cohorts throughout history bulldoze them before your ears.

Linda May Han Oh - The Glass Hours

Jazz has an ocean of history with spoken word, but this fusion must be executed judiciously: again, these bold flavors can overwhelm each other. Except when they're in the hands of an artist as keen as Linda May Han Oh.

"I didn't want it to be an album with a lot of spoken word," the Malaysian Australian bassist and composer told LondonJazz, explaining that "Antiquity" is the only track on The Glass Hours to feature a recitation from the great vocalist Sara Serpa. "I just felt it was necessary for that particular piece, to explain a bit of the narrative more."

Elsewhere, Serpa's crystalline, wordless vocals are but one color swirling with the rest: tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist Fabian Almazan, and drummer and electronicist Obed Calvaire.

Themed after "the fragility of time and life; exploring paradoxes seeded within our individual and societal values," The Glass Hours is Oh's most satisfying and well-rounded offering to date, ensconced in an iridescent atmosphere.

Charles Lloyd - Trios: Sacred Thread

You can't get too deep into jazz without bumping into the art of the trio — and the primacy of it. 

At 85, saxophonist and composer Charles Lloyd is currently smoking every younger iteration of himself on the horn; his exploratory fires are undimmed. So, for his latest project, he opted not just to just release a trio album, but a trio of trios.

Trios: Chapel features guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan; Trios: Ocean is augmented by guitarist Anthony Wilson and pianist Gerald Clayton; the final, Trios: Sacred Thread, contains guitarists Julian Lage and percussionist Zakir Hussain.

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Joni Mitchell Performs in 1995 at JazzFest
Joni Mitchell performs in 1995

Photo: David Redfern/Redferns

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10 Lesser-Known Joni Mitchell Songs You Need To Hear

In celebration of Joni Mitchell's 80th birthday, here are 10 essential deep cuts from the nine-time GRAMMY winner and MusiCares Person Of The Year.

GRAMMYs/Nov 7, 2023 - 03:03 pm

Having rebounded from a 2015 aneurysm, the nine-time GRAMMY winner and 17-time nominee has made a thrilling and inspiring return to the stage. Many of us have seen the images of Mitchell, enthroned in a mockup of her living room, exuding a regal air, clutching a wolf’s-head cane.

Again, this adulation is apt. But adulation can have a flattening effect, especially for those new to this colossal artist. At the MusiCares Person Of The Year event honoring Mitchell ahead of the 2022 GRAMMYs, concert curators Jon Batiste — and Mitchell ambassador Brandi Carlile — illustrated the breadth of her Miles Davis-esque trajectory, of innovation after innovation.

At the three-hour, star-studded bash, the audience got "The Circle Game" and "Big Yellow Taxi" and the other crowd pleasers. But there were also cuts from Hejira and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Night Ride Home, and other dark horses. There were selections that even eluded this Mitchell fan’s knowledge, like "Urge for Going." Batiste and Carlile did their homework.

But what of the general listening public — do they grasp Mitchell’s multitudes like they might her male peers, like Bob Dylan? Is her album-by-album evolution to be poured over with care and nuance, or is she Blue to you?

Of course, everyone’s entitled to commune with the greats at their own pace. However, if you’re out to plumb Mitchell’s depths beyond a superficial level, her 80th birthday — which falls on Nov. 8 — is the perfect time to get to know this still-underrated singer/songwriter legend better. Here are 10 deeper Mitchell cuts to start that journey, into this woman of heart and mind

Mitchell blew everyone’s minds when David Crosby discovered her in a small club in South Florida. Her 1968 debut, Song to a Seagull, contains key songs from that initial flashpoint, like "Michael from Mountains" and "The Dawntreader."

Mitchell’s artistic vision truly coalesced on her second album,
Clouds. Although the production is a little wan and bare-boned, Clouds contains a handful of all-time classics, including "Chelsea Morning," "The Fiddle and the Drum" and the epochal "Both Sides, Now."

That said, "The Gallery," which kicks off side two, belongs at the top of the heap. There remain rumblings that it’s about Leonard Cohen. But whatever the case, Mitchell’s excoriating burst of a pretentious cad’s bubble ("And now you're flying back this way/ Like some lost homing pigeon/ They've monitored your brain, you say/ And changed you with religion") remains incisive, with a gorgeous melody to boot.

(And, it must be said: "That Song About the Midway," also found on Clouds, is a kiss-off to Croz, whom she enjoyed a fleeting fling with and a must-hear.)

"Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" (For the Roses, 1972)

If you think you’ve got a grasp of Mitchell’s early talents, a new archival release proves they were more prodigious than you could imagine.

Joni Mitchell Archives, Vol. 3: The Asylum Years (1972-1975) kicks off with a solo version of "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire." And as great as the studio version is, from 1972’s For the Roses, this version, from a session with Crosby and Graham Nash, arguably eats its lunch.

While Neil Young’s "The Needle and the Damage Done" has proved to be the epochal junkie-warning song of the 1970s, Mitchell’s song about the same subject easily goes toe to toe with it.

Images like "Pawn shops crisscrossed and padlocked/ Corridors spit on prayers and pleas" and "Red water in the bathroom sink/ Fever and the scum brown bowl" are quietly harrowing. Via Mitchell’s acoustic guitar, they’re underpinned by downcast, harmonically teeming blues.

"Sweet Bird" (The Hissing of Summer Lawns, 1975)

The Hissing of Summer Lawns is an unquestionable masterstroke of Mitchell’s fusion era.

Highlights are genuinely everywhere within Lawns — from the swinging and swaying "In France They Kiss on Main Street," to the Dr. Dre-predicting "The Jungle Line," to the title track, a hallucinatory lament for a trophy wife.

But amid these manifold high points, don’t miss "Sweet Bird," the penultimate track on The Hissing of Summer Lawns, tucked between "Harry’s House/Centerpiece" and "Shadows and Light."

"Give me some time/ I feel like I'm losing mine/ Out here on this horizon line," Mitchell sings through her dusky soprano, as the ECM-like atmosphere seems to whirl heavenward. "With the earth spinning/ And the sky forever rushing/ No one knows/ They can never get that close/ Guesses at most."

"A Strange Boy" (Hejira, 1976)

Much like The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira — retroactively, and rightly, canonized as one of Mitchell’s very best albums — is nearly flawless from front to back.

The highs are so high — "Amelia," "Hejira," "Refuge of the Roads" — that almost-as-good tracks might slip through the cracks. "A Strange Boy," about an airline steward with Peter Pan syndrome she briefly linked with.

"He was psychologically astute and severely adolescent at the same time," Mitchell said later. "There was something seductive and charming about his childlike qualities, but I never harbored any illusions about him being my man. He was just a big kid in the end."

As "A Strange Boil" smolders and begins to catch flame, Mitchell delivers the clincher line: "I gave him clothes and jewelry/ I gave him my warm body/ I gave him power over me."

"Otis and Marlena" (Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, 1977)

One of Mitchell’s most challenging and thorny albums, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter is one of Mitchell’s least accessible offerings from her most expressionist era. (Mitchell in blackface on the cover, as a character named Art Nouveau, doesn’t exactly grease the wheels — to put it mildly.)

But across the sprawling and head-scratching tracklisting — which includes a seven-minute percussion interlude, in "The Tenth World" — are certain tunes that belong in the Mitchell time capsule.

One is "Otis and Marlena," one of the funniest and most evocative moments on an album full of strange wonders. Mitchell paints a picture of a cheap vacation scene, rife with "rented girls" and "the grand parades of cellulite" against a "neon-mercury vapor-stained Miami sky."

And the kicker of a chorus juxtaposes this dowdy Floridan outing with the realities up north, e.g. the 1977 Hanafi Siege: "They’ve come for fun and sun," MItchell sings, "while Muslims stick up Washington."

"A Chair in the Sky" (Mingus, 1979)

While Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter is rather glowering and unwelcoming, Mingus is a cracked, cubist realm that’s fully inhabitable.

Initially conceived as a collaboration between Mitchell and four-time GRAMMY nominee Charles Mingus, it ended up being a eulogy: Mingus died before the album could be completed.

Despite its lopsided nature — it contains five spoken-word "raps," as well as a true oddity in the eerie, braying "The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey" — Mingus remains rewarding almost 45 years later. And the Mingus-composed "A Chair in the Sky," with lyrics by Mitchell, is arguably its apogee.

Like the rest of Hejira, "A Chair in the Sky" features Jaco Pastorius and Wayne Shorter from Weather Report, as well as the one and only Herbie Hancock; this ethereal, ascendant track demonstrates the magic of when this phenomenal ensemble truly gels.

"Moon at the Window" (Wild Things Run Fast, 1982)

In Mitchell’s trajectory, Wild Things Run Fast represents the conclusion of her fusion phase, in favor of a more rock-driven sound — and, with it, the sunset of her second epoch.

Following Wild Things Run Fast would be 1985’s critically panned Dog Eat Dog and 1988’s even more assailed Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm. But for every arguable misstep, like the guitar-squealing "You Dream Flat Tires," there’s a baby that shouldn’t be thrown out with the bathwater.

One is "Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody," another is "Ladies’ Man," and perhaps best of all is the luminous "Moon at the Window," where bassist/husband Larry Klein and Shorter wrap Mitchell’s sumptuous lyric, and melody, in spun gold.

"Passion Play (When All the Slaves Are Free)" (Night Ride Home, 1991)

At the dawn of the grunge era, Mitchell found her way back to her atmospheric best, with the gorgeously written, performed and produced Night Ride Home.

While its follow-up, Turbulent Indigo, won the GRAMMY for Best Pop Album (and is certainly worth savoring), Night Ride Home might have more to offer those who were enraptured by the majestic Hejira, and thirsted for a continuation of its aural universe.

The equally excellent "Come in From the Cold" is the one that has ended up on Mitchell setlists in the 2020s, but "Passion Play (When All the Slaves Are Free)" is even more transportive.

Despite the early 1900s sonics, "Passion Play" feels ageless and eternal, tapped into some Jungian collective unconscious as a wizened Mitchell posits, "Who’re you going to get to do your dirty work/ When all the slaves are free?"

"No Apologies" (Taming the Tiger, 1998)

If Night Ride Home sounds less played than conjured Taming the Tiger is like the steam that twists and disperses from its broiling, potent stew.

As much ambience pervaded
Night Ride Home, Hejira and the like, Taming the Tiger is the only album in Mitchell’s estimable catalog to feel ambient.

Much of this is owed to Mitchell’s employment of the Roland VG-8 virtual guitar system, which allowed her to change her byzantine guitar tunings at the push of a button; the ensuing sound is a suggestion of a guitar, which enhances​​ Taming the Tiger’s diaphanous and ephemeral feel.

"No Apologies" is something of a centerpiece, where Mitchell sings of war and a dilapidated homeland, sailing forth on a cloud of Greg Liestz’s sonorous lap steel.

"Bad Dreams" (Shine, 2007)

Mitchell has always cast a jaundiced eye at the music industry machine, so it’s no wonder she hasn’t released a new album in 16 years. (Although, as she revealed to Rolling Stone, she’s eyeing a small-ensemble album of standards with her old mates in the jazz scene.)

But if Shine ends up being her swan song, it’d be a fine farewell. "Bad Dreams" — written around a quote from Mitchell’s 3-year-old grandson: "Bad dreams are good / In the great plan" — is impossibly moving.

Therein, Mitchell considers an Edenic tableau as opposed to our modern world, where "these lesions once were lakes." Movingly, the song’s final lines accept reality for what it is ("Who will come to save the day? / Mighty Mouse? Superman?") rather than what she wishes it could be.

With that, Mitchell’s studio discography — as we know it today — reaches its conclusion. But although the artist is only fully getting her flowers today, we’ve only scratched the surface of the gifts she’s bestowed upon us.

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