Photo: Craig Marsden
(L-R) Tyshawn Sorey, Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh
Vijay Iyer On His New Trio Album 'Uneasy,' American Identity & Teaching Black American Music In The 21st Century
On 'Uneasy,' pianist Vijay Iyer bands together with his creative family—bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey—to envisage a more equitable world
Vijay Iyer may be one of the foremost academics in 21st century music, but he's far more absorbed in the body than the brain. He peppers his language with references to the heart, spine and hips; his paramount rhythmic value is the pulse. And when describing how a terrific rhythm section glues together, he clasps together his index fingers and pulls.
"Let the record show that I'm making a weird hand gesture right now," the GRAMMY-nominated pianist, composer and Harvard Department of Music professor announces with a chuckle over Zoom. "Kind of hooked and pulling apart, but somehow hanging together." Iyer is describing a musical phenomenon called "the hookup," which perfectly describes the concision between him, bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey in his latest trio.
Oh and Sorey aren't mere collaborators or accompanists; they're educators and composers in their own rights. Of Sorey's drumming, Iyer cites a "life-sustaining kind of magic." And of Oh's bass playing, "Her awareness of and relation to pulse, it's like micro-detail," he says. Those qualities and more can be found on Uneasy, the trio's first studio record, which drops April 9 on ECM Records. The album is a mix of topical material "Children of Flint" with Iyer originals ("Combat Breathing") and standards ("Night and Day") from deep in their wheelhouse.
Most importantly, Iyer considers the pair to be his musical family; together, they're his stronghold through a racially and sociopolitically turbulent time. And with the tragic Atlanta spa shootings in the rearview, the cover—where the three musicians' names float around an out-of-focus Statue of Liberty—is a side-eyed glance at what it means to be an American.
GRAMMY.com spoke with Vijay Iyer about the architecture of a trio record and his feelings on American identity in the wake of anti-Asian violence. Plus, just in time for Music In Our Schools Month, he explores how educators can teach Black American music more fairly and accurately in the 21st century.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I love trio albums. To me, Bill Evans' Sunday at the Village Vanguard is the gold standard. Recently, I've connected greatly with Bill Frisell's Valentine. Uneasy is another excellent one. So, what is it about the power of a trio, in your estimation? To me, it has the integrity of a triangle in architecture.
Oh, so many things. There's both the disparateness of it, in the sense that we're each doing pretty seemingly qualitatively different things. Maybe the piano and drums have more in common, let's say, but still, the materials we're working with are so different.
Then, at the same time, everything is done with the hands and the feet, to a certain extent. In particular, that means that there's no literal breath involved in anything you hear. So there's a certain kind of tactile quality because of that. Every sound you hear is the result of a touch of some kind.
And, that any lyricism is sort of an illusion, in the sense that when you hear a melody that connects, you are being invited to imagine a voice that's not there, you know? Imagine a sort of breath that is not directly involved in the sounds you're hearing. So, that has a certain kind of suspended quality because of that. It's both a suspension of disbelief and a handmade universe. That's one detail about it that is intriguing.
The other side of it is, at some level, I don't care what the hands are doing as a listener. I care about something more central. Meaning, what do I connect to when I hear musicians in action? What do I, as a listener, as an observer, find myself relating to sonically? What I find myself relating to sonically is a sense of pulse that comes from the center of the body. From the heart, from the spine, from the torso, from the hips, you know? Not from the hands.
So, that's a funny paradox. Why is the trio the rhythm section? Why is it that somehow, by touching and hitting things, we're expressing something central? How do what the hands do reflect where the heart is, or what the center of the body is doing? How do we conjure these qualities of motion that compel a listener to move, to not use the hands, but move the body?
That feels like a paradox to me—or at least a puzzle, or some kind of challenge. How is it that we, through the actions of our hands, can summon the actions of a body—or a multitude of bodies, even? How do we conjure pulse? What that means is that how we play together is by connecting body-to-body in that way—connecting spine to spine. The hands are just kind of—well, they're extremities. So there's sort of the result of deeper connection. The actions of the hands and their apparent coordination amongst all six is the result of something much deeper. And because of that, they can have, like I said, a disparate quality—almost a seeming disunity—on a certain level and still be connected mysteriously from within.
That allows for a really interesting kind of polyphony—a kind that can have this kind of rough-and-tumble quality. Because it's about things falling. The impulse is previous to it, you know? I guess what I'm saying is that whatever way we're synchronizing internally, sonically, what you hear is merely a reflection of that. The center of the music is somehow not sounded. That's the miraculous, illusory quality of it. I don't if this makes any sense.
Vijay Iyer performing in Berlin in 2016. Photo: Stefan Hoederath/Redferns
It does make sense. Because the way that Bill Evans Trio record fires up—it's a shuffle on the snare here, a piano vamp there, and it's not gelling right off the bat. But then the triangle settles on its base, as it were.
I think my iconic trio music has a different kick to it, maybe. Maybe it has to do with the role of the drummer in particular, as more than an accompanist. I think my iconic trio album is Money Jungle. You know that record?
Duke [Ellington], right?
Yeah. You don't hear them and think, "Wow, these guys have been playing together forever!" or something like that. What you're kind of gripped by is the complex and even contentious relationship among them and how they kind of lurch. The qualities of motion are so intense. There are moments where they're gliding and dancing and there are moments where it feels like combat or something. So, that's one point of reference.
Another point of reference is Ahmad Jamal, Live at the Pershing. Which is so much about groove at play—play in the sense of playing with form and playing with elements. It's not soloistic, for the most part. It's not like, "I'm going to play, then you're going to play. I'm going to comp for you," or something like that. It's actually that they're creating this totality and it keeps breathing and flexing and changing color, changing energy, changing dynamic. So, it's very much a collective enterprise at all times.
Those are two points of reference, but then I also think about rhythm sections, just in general. James Brown's rhythm section, or The Meters. Not piano trio-specific, even. Just how a deep pulse can be expressed in this composite way.
I saw this trio at Jazz Standard back in 2019. It's obvious you, Linda and Tyshawn have wonderful synergy, but I'm curious as to what that synergy is. What do you enjoy about the chemical reaction generated by this specific combination?
I think what anyone wants out of any rhythm section is a certain quality of pulse—a certain sense of drive, what they call "the hookup" between bass and drums, let's say. Often, that has to do with how each one of them relates to the pulse and how maybe that creates a sustained—[clasps index fingers and pulls]. Let the record show that I'm making a weird hand gesture right now—kind of hooked and pulling apart, but somehow hanging together.
So there's something about that balance. It's elusive in the sense that it's not merely like, "Oh, so-and-so plays behind the beat and so-and-so plays on top of the beat." Sometimes it's that, but often, it's a little more nuanced than that.
In any case, there's a real attentiveness to that quality from both of them that I hear in every sound they make together. Like, where are you in relation to time and in relation to pulse, specifically? How are you expressing pulse? How is it being expressed through what you do?
Every sound you make is also rhythm, and every rhythm that you make together sets up a rhythmic relation. So, how is that rhythmic relation being expressed? It pops with that. It has this nice drive and intensity and focus, you know?
The other thing is how they listen, both of them. I've played with Tyshawn for 20 years. He's like family to me. We've had this delightful adventure together for half our lives in all kinds of ways, in all kinds of music-making. Teaching and learning and traveling and eating weird food together and losing our bags. Getting pulled over by security together. All kinds of stuff. There's a deep bond there, and that didn't just come out of nowhere, you know. It didn't just come out because we happened to be in the same place at the same time, or something. It's actually because of how he listens, and how I listen to him listening, and how we relate that way.
It's about his musical memory and how I can attend to that. It's about a certain shared aesthetic, I would say. A certain kind of balance of stillness and wildness. I guess by "wild," I mean a taste for intensity and for even extremes of intensity. Not "wild," per se, because it's not like he does anything that's disordered. Actually, everything he does is generating order. That's one thing I eventually realized in playing with him, is that it's all support. It's all structure, every sound he makes. It's all deeply informed by not just everything that's happening, but by many histories of music-making that he's tapped into.
I've said this elsewhere about him and just about drummers in general. I mean, I've talked a lot about Marcus Gilmore, who I've also worked with for many years. I got to know and work with Ralph Peterson, who I can't believe is gone. I've gotten to know folks like Jeff "Tain" Watts and Jack DeJohnette. And there's Marcus's grandfather, Roy Haynes, who just turned 96!
Getting to know all these incredible drummers—Billy Hart, another—[is a matter of] knowing that they are aware of much more than they're usually given credit for, musically. There's a deep compositional awareness. They're incredible listeners. They hear everything. I'm not exaggerating! Andrew Cyrille, another example. I've had great experiences making music with him.
There's kind of a perspicuous vantage on everything—an awareness of everything. Channeling that, there's a deeply informed and informational way of playing. It's not just playing a groove or playing a pattern. It's actually where you work with sound to complement and lift up what's happening. To conduct the energy of the entire ensemble even while not being given credit for doing so. There's a profundity to the art of drumming that is way beyond the way it's usually characterized, you know? Tyshawn is one of the exemplars of that incredible artistry. That incredible awareness and creative, life-sustaining kind of magic.
Tyshawn Sorey performing in Chicago in 2014. Photo: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images
With Linda, she came to the U.S. in the aughts—sometime in the early 2000s. I remember hearing that she had done a thesis on Dave Holland and did a bunch of transcriptions of him playing with different drummers. I sort of learned more about her; she had really gone in deep on something. I always appreciated that.
I remember talking to Ambrose [Akinmusire] about her because her first album that she released, Entry, was a trio with Ambrose and Obed Calvaire. That was a bold step, first of all, for a bass player to make an album as a leader at that age. She was probably in her early twenties. And to make it an odd format—there aren't that many records that are trumpet, bass and drums. Maybe a Bill Dixon record somewhere? I don't know—not many things.
So, yeah, the transparency of that. I remember Ambrose saying, "Look, she really has that type of ear. She can hear on a really high level." I knew how Ambrose could hear, which is not that different from how Tyshawn hears, in the sense of, again, that deep awareness of everything. When someone plays something, there's no mystery about what it is. There could be a mystery about why it is. [Laughs.]
But her ability to hear on that level, and then her real detail and care with timekeeping and her awareness of and relation to pulse, it's like micro-detail. And then just getting around on the instrument with real ease. I've heard her in all kinds of contexts, you know. She's got a great career as a composer and a bandleader, but I've also heard her play with Kenny Barron, with Pat Metheny, with all kinds of folks. She always keeps things aloft, and I've played with her many times over the years in lots of different ad hoc contexts.
I just found a photo of her and me and Becca Stevens. We did a couple of trio sets, just the three of us. There's a time when she and I and E.J. Strickland played in a quintet with Ravi Coltrane and Dave Douglas. There's an improvised session we did at The Stone with Imani Izuri and DJ Val Jeanty—DJ and Linda and me and this vocalist. And then there's all the stuff we did at Banff together. Somewhere, there's a recording of her and me and Grégoire Maret, the harmonica player. There's all these wild aggregates where she just holds down the center of things with such clarity and ferocity. It was in the course of doing all these ad-hoc, thrown-together things that we realized we already knew how to play together.
I set up a trio set for us at the Standard, probably the first one you came to, in early '19. Then we were at Banff again that summer, August 2019, and it was toward the end of that program that we just wanted to blow off steam. We said, "Hey, let's just play a trio set. It'll just be for the students. It won't be for an audience or anything," just to do it. Just to serve the music and be a community, you know.
It felt so alive. It had this flash of "Yeah, this is a thing." It had its own truth to it. You can't deny it. Right then, I just said, "You guys want to make a record?" and a few months later, we recorded it. I think what that sound is has to do with that excitement. That spark of possibility combined with that level of awareness that the two of them have about all the musical structure and information. And then both of them as composers having a dynamic sense of what can happen.
Linda May Han Oh performing in Monterey, California, in 2017. Photo: Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
In a recent Zoom panel, you talked about the cover—the Statue of Liberty triangulated by the three musicians' names. Given that the three names recall three different racial descents, they serve as commentary on the nature of American identity. I'm sure the events of this week gave you pause on the otherness that Americans of different colors and backgrounds are feeling.
It isn't just that it happened. It is that, but it's also what that police captian from Cherokee County said, and also the way it was handled by the media. That's when you go, "This is all connected." The idea that some white kid—not kid, a young white man—who's disgruntled about whatever, his own supposed sex addiction, can blame the most vulnerable people and then murder them. And then that can be treated as almost normal. Almost excusable. The discourse around it was "Well, he had a bad day."
And then we keep seeing pictures of him and his name constantly essentially glorifying and humanizing him. "He went to church." That whole pattern of humanizing the white male killer, and meantime, I had dig around to find even a mention of any of the names of the victims.
You described Tyshawn as "family." What role does communing with this chosen family and making music together play in that healing process and finding a future through the wreckage?
It is the sound of a certain kind of communion. That was Don Cherry's phrase: "complete communion," which means not just with one another, but with something larger and deeper than any of us. And it's been so long since we've been able to do that, really, in any kind of regular way.
Being able to put this album now is to say, "We can still do this. We can still be among each other in a caring way, in a way that's about listening and co-construction and facing the world together." That's basically what it means to me.
Because the lead single was "Children of Flint," people might be tempted to think this is all topical material. But from what I understand, some of it is simply material from your wheelhouses. Cole Porter's "Night and Day" comes to mind. What common thread is there between all these tunes, if any?
I wouldn't say it was forced into any kind of common theme. The impulse to make the record was that we felt like as a band. At that level, it's like, "It doesn't matter what we play, actually. Let's just document something so we can remember this sound and share it with people."
That said, then it was a certain kind of curatorial exercise to me to pull together material that I felt like playing with them—that I felt could be given a certain kind of life and context. I wanted to know what it would sound like. I wanted to hear it. I wanted to hear us playing this music, you know? I wanted to hear the two of them take on some of this material.
And then some of it was new. "Children of Flint" was written that fall. "Retrofit" was written that summer. There was another new piece I didn't end up including on the album. "Allomothers," is relatively new, I guess. So, it was about just gathering together a set of stimuli for us, a set of impulses: "Hey, let's work with this. Let's bring this into being."
Some of that involved some studying. Geri Allen's "Drummer's Song" is a piece that you have to study to play. And it wasn't just that it was "Night and Day;" it's that it was Joe Henderson's version of "Night and Day" from Inner Urge. There's something different about that version. [Laughs].
He reharmonizes it in a way that's not exactly Coltrane-esque, but something in that family. [John] Coltrane went through a period in the late '50s where everything had what are called "Giant Steps" changes. "Countdown" is actually his version of Miles Davis' "Tune Up," but with a whole bunch of extra chords stuck in there to make it almost fiendishly hard! What does that elicit from you? There's an etude-like quality in the sense of working through some set of challenges to elicit something new from you. I mean you, the musician. You, the music-maker. You, the improviser.
That's basically what Joe Henderson did with "Night and Day," so it was that. It didn't matter that it was "Night and Day," actually. It mattered that it was that impulse, that transformative gesture that Joe Henderson brought to it. And then it mattered that it was that band playing it. Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, Bob Cranshaw, Joe Henderson. That band just sailing through that really wild arrangement.
Then there was, like, "Let's study that," because we study what other musicians have done. We study it hard. We put in the time. That's what both of them do just as a matter of course. What that means is I can just say, "Hey, let's try this," and within a matter of minutes, Linda has learned it. [Laughs.] Beyond that, it's like I'm learning from her about it.
With my material, it was really curatorial over a span of 20 years' worth of compositions of mine, "Configurations" being the oldest and "Children of Flint" being the newest.
It's not that any particular album is political, but at almost any moment in my musical life, I'm listening to what's happening outside and that is informing what I do, why I do it and with whom I do it. And for whom I do it. The first two pieces on the album are probably the most "political." But it's more like each of them was serving a specific purpose—serving a specific cause. And by serving, I mean literally serving. Trying to support an existing movement on the ground.
March is Music In Our Schools Month, and I wanted to talk about the intersection between jazz—or, Black American music, whatever language you want to use—and academia. You're in academia, Tyshawn's in academia, I don't remember if Linda is…
Yeah, she teaches at Berklee, actually.
There you go. I don't remember when jazz education began in the U.S., but it wasn't around in the '50s or '60s, as far as I know. Musicians were learning from each other—teacher to student and peer to peer. Now, in many ways, this music lives in universities. Can you talk about that connection and how it can be helpful or problematic in some respect?
[Long silence.] Can I? [Laughs.]
I don't know if I can. I think in both Tyshawn's and my case, neither of us pretends to be a jazz anything in academia. We just show up as ourselves—as the artists that we are. He's a composition professor at the University of Pennsylvania. I started a doctoral program at Harvard called Creative Practices and Critical Inquiry.
I never use the word "jazz" in any of my courses. That's not to say we don't study this history, but I also appreciate the history of people rejecting the word "jazz." That's a deep history. That's a 100-year-old history of people pushing back against the confining labeling impulse of the music business, which has historically been a white business—a white male-run business.
So when Black musicians have sought to define their work on their own terms, we have to listen to that history. In the '60s, people started using the phrase "creative music." In the '60s! That's more than half a century ago, right? That label's been around for a long time, alongside and pushing back against the label of jazz.
Also, there's this history of music-makers creating music on their own terms, sometimes in a way that you can't categorize. If you listen to Bud Powell's piece "Glass Enclosure," you can't listen to that and say, "Well, that's a jazz tune," or something like that. You have to crack open all categories to parse it, even—to make sense of it.
Or a moment like "Strange Fruit," Billie Holiday. Very intently exploding the category and defying her own audiences to think about the world outside, you know? And to think about their own relationship to it and their own complicity with it. I would call that something like experimental music, because it's doing something that pushes on every dimension of the category and kind of explodes the frame.
There are all kinds of examples. Afternoon of a Georgia Faun, Marion Brown. Another example. Or Alice Coltrane's recordings. On at least one of her albums, she recorded an entire section of "Rite of Spring." What's that doing on an Alice Coltrane record? What is her relationship to that history? Why is she evoking a Russian composer, a piece from 1913?
I think these categories keep undoing themselves if you really pay attention to what an artist has been doing all this time.
Bird hated the word "jazz." Dizzy hated it. Yusef Lateef hated it. I'm fine with throwing it in the garbage when necessary.
Right. So, how do we teach that? The fraught history of the category, the forces that shaped it and continue to shape it, and the choices artists have made, often in defiance of categorization and larger systems of oppression? It's about looking at books like Amiri Baraka's Blues People, Angela Davis' Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Gerald Horne's Jazz and Justice, Robin Kelley's book on Thelonious Monk, Art Taylor's Notes and Tones and George Lewis' book on the AACM. Understanding how what it really is is a history of social movements, actually.
If you look at the "creative music movement," as Sarita McCoy Gregory called it, what was it that Black musicians were doing in the '60s and '70s, around the time of the Black Power movement? They were self-organizing and making music on their own terms, often starting their own labels, their own venues, their own presenting organizing, their own artist collectives.
If you go to jazz school, like the Manhattan School of Music or something, you don't learn about any of this because it defies the logic of jazz education. Jazz education as we know it today was an entrepreneurial venture by white men in the '60s and '70s.
So when you look at the "Real Book" that was made at that period, that I had in the '80s when I was in high school, what did it have in it? And what didn't it have in it? It didn't have any music by Mary Lou Williams or Nina Simone or Alice Coltrane or Lil Hardin. It didn't have anything you would associate with the avant-garde or the Black Power movement, like Archie Shepp or Albert Ayler. Certainly no Cecil Taylor. Maybe one or two Ornette Coleman tunes from the '50s. So it basically ignored all these pivotal Black women and pivotal Black activists from the '60s.
Instead, all the Black music it contains is from the past. Some Coltrane tunes. Some Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter tunes from the '50s and '60s. A lot of Duke Ellington, Mingus. But then all the "modern music" is by white men. Chick Corea. Gary Burton. Steve Swallow. Dave Holland. Keith Jarrett. They're all in there, right?
Why are they all in the "Real Book" and why aren't any of these other things? It's stuff like that. We have to historicize what we call "jazz education" and understand it to be this weird phenomenon that emerged in a certain moment and then retold the history of the music in a way that erased more than it retained.
I like that a lot. The idea of telling the story again more accurately and inclusively, rather than locking it in an ivory tower or excluding anybody.
Well, really, hearing it from artists. We had Henry Threadgill in our class. [Saxophonist and composer] Yosvany [Terry] and I co-teach a course this term. We bore witness to his whole life of music-making that starts before any of that happened.
We also had Cécile McLorin Salvant there. Hearing them back-to-back was like, "Well, they're dealing with similar constraints, and they both have a quirky, defiant streak, and they're both resisting categorization." They're in very different phases in their lives—they're separated by close to 50 years.
We start to rethink the history from the ground up and try to account for what has been… not forgotten, but sort of left out of the standard narrative. The other side of it is like, "Help people make music together with a detailed understanding of what's happened before and what's possible." But also let people invent, you know? Let people invent together.
I've heard people make some unprecedented stuff, and if you support that process, then you're actually stimulating—or not just stimulating, you're recreating something like what it was like when these artists we know and love came together 50 and 60 and 70 and 80 years ago without the burden of a genre to tell them what to do.
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Photo: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Remembering Wayne Shorter: 7 Gateway Tracks From The Jazz Titan's 1960s Run
The pioneering composer and tenor and soprano saxophonist passed away on March 2. His influence and legacy spans decades and permutations of jazz, but for the uninitiated, here are seven highlights from his 1960s leader albums.
When the world learned of the pioneering saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter's death on March 2, it did so partly through a quote from the maestro itself: "It's time to go get a new body and come back to continue the mission."
This evocation of reincarnation not only speaks to Shorter's elaborate psychospiritual universe — he followed Nichiren Buddhism for half a century — but his multitudes as an artistic behemoth. In his 89-year life, Shorter irrevocably altered so many sectors of jazz and related forms that he seemed to inhabit many bodies at once.
To trace the 12-time GRAMMY winner's artistic evolution is to tell the story of the music as it evolved and propagated through the latter half of the 20th century. He was a member of two of the most crucial groups in jazz history: the brilliant, hotheaded drummer Art Blakey's unofficial jazz academy the Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis' so-called Second Great Quintet.
But even that's just the tip of the iceberg. After an astonishing run of leader albums on Blue Note — including all-timers like JuJu, Speak No Evil and The All Seeing Eye — Shorter formed Weather Report, a fundamental group in '70s and '80s jazz fusion. Along the way, he also collaborated with AOR legends — Joni Mitchell on a slew of mid-period records, and on the title track to Aja, Steely Dan.
In the 21st century, he continued hurtling forward as a composer, and work only seemed to grow more eclectic and multifarious, arguably culminating with (Iphigenia), an expansive opera co-created with bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding. At the 2023 GRAMMYs, he won Best Improvised Jazz Solo alongside pianist Leo Genovese for "Endangered Species," a cut on Live at the Detroit Jazz Festival, which also features Spalding and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington.
In 2015, the Recording Academy bestowed upon him a Lifetime Achievement Award. "Wayne Shorter's influence on the jazz community has left an indelible mark on the music industry," Harvey Mason jr., CEO of the Recording Academy, said in part. "It's been a privilege to celebrate his contributions to our culture throughout his incredible career."
As bandleader Darcy James Argue put it, "There isn't a jazz composer today who does not owe an absolutely immeasurable debt to Wayne Shorter. Whether you assimilated his harmonic language, or consciously rejected it, or tried to thread a path somewhere in between, his influence is as unavoidable as the elements."
But with this vast cosmology established, how can Shorter neophytes find their own way in? To traverse the universe of the self-dubbed Mr. Weird — from a line about person or thing X being “as weird as Wayne” — one need not enter it at random.
Arguably, the gateway is Shorter's aforementioned '60s run as a leader; from there, one can venture out in a dozen directions and be rewarded with a lifetime of cerebrality and majesty.
So, for those looking for a way in, here are seven essential tracks from that specific period and component of Shorter's culture-quaking legacy.
"Night Dreamer" (Night Dreamer, 1964)
Shorter was terrific as a leader from the jump, but he arguably came into his own with his fourth album under his own name, Night Dreamer. Much of this had to do with paring down his compositions to their haunting essence. "I used to see a lot of chord changes, for instance, but now I can separate the wheat from the chaff," Shorter said at the time.
Immerse yourself into the fittingly crepuscular title track, which Shorter crafted for a nighttime brood. "The minor keys often connotes evening or night to me," he wrote in the liner notes. "Although the beat does float, it also is set in a heavy groove. It's a paradox, in a way — like you'd have in a dream, something that's both light and heavy."
"Juju" (Juju, 1965)
Night Dreamer and Juju feature a rhythm section closely associated with John Coltrane — the classic Olé Coltrane one, composed of pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Elvin Jones.
As a tenorist influenced by Coltrane, Shorter invited comparisons to his inspiration. But alongside Trane's accompanists, he had developed his own style — with the raw, unvarnished quality of said legend, but a barer tone and more elliptical sense of articulation. Juxtaposed against his accompanists' dazzling, shattered-glass approach, the side-eyeing Shorter is enchanting.
"House of Jade" (Juju, 1965)
After the rainshower of piano notes that initiates "House of Jade," Shorter demonstrates his inimitable way with a ballad, hung on Jones' weighty swing and sway. As jazz author and columnist Mark Stryker put it in an edifying Twitter thread compiling the best of Shorter at a gentler pace: "The ballads are everything. It's all there, now and forever."
"Indian Song" (Etcetera, rec. 1965 rel. 1980)
Featuring bassist Cecil McBee, drummer Joe Chambers, and harmonic mastermind Herbie Hancock — Shorter's lifelong ride-or-die — on piano, Etcetera was recorded the same year as Juju but remained on the shelf for a decade. Better late than never: it stands tall among Shorter's Blue Notes of its time.
All five tracks are fantastic — four Shorters, one Gil Evans, in "Barracudas (General Assembly)." But regarding its final track, "Indian Song," one reviewer might have hit the nail on the head: "At times the rest of the album seems like a warm-up for that amazing tune."
Across more than 11 minutes, "Indian Song" expands and retracts, inhales and exhales, on a spectral path into the unknown. Want an immediate example of how Shorter and Hancock twinned and intertwined their musical spirits to intoxicating effect? Look no further.
"Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum" (Speak No Evil, 1966)
As per compositional mastery, evocative interplay and plain old vibe, Speak No Evil represents something of an apogee for Shorter — and many in the know regard it as the crown jewel.
The majestic, mid-tempo "Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum" is just one highlight of this quintessential, classic-stuffed Blue Note. Hear how Hancock's elusive harmonic shades and Shorter's simple yet impassioned approach just gel — with support from trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Elvin Jones.
"Wayne isn't playing the changes, but plays around the composition—he's creative within the composition," saxophonist David Sanchez once explicated. "[It's] distinct from a lot of other Blue Note recordings of the period on which, generally speaking, people would improvise on the changes once the head or theme was over."
But you don't need to know what's under the hood to hear how this classic thrillingly pushes and pulls.
"Infant Eyes" (Speak No Evil, 1966)
"Infant Eyes" is a Shorter ballad of almost surreal atmosphere and beauty: on a compositional and emotional level, it's difficult to compare it to much else. It's "doom jazz" decades before that was ever a thing.
Down to Shorter's sheer note choices and the grain of his tone, "Infant Eyes" will make your heart leap into your throat. As per Stryker's Twitter litany of enchanting Shorter ballads, the combination is stiff — but if one is supreme, it's difficult to not pick this one.
"Footprints" (Adam's Apple, 1967)
This loping waltz-not-waltz from 1967's Adam's Apple is one of Shorter's most well-known tunes; even without close analysis of its sneaky rhythms, it's downright irresistible. And talk about gateways: it's a launchpad for any young musician who wants to give his tunes a shot.
"Footprints" continues to be a standard; it titled his biography; the Facebook post announcing Shorter's death bore footprint emojis. Shorter may have transitioned from this body, but his impressions are everywhere — and we'll never see the likes of Mr. Weird again.
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Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
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Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].
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Graphic: The Recording Academy
Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.
Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.
Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.
Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."
Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business.
As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.
Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"
In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.
Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt."
There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.
Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"
Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.
After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon.
"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.
Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"
Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.
In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."
Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall.
Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"
When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.
Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production.
Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.
Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"
Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."
Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar.
Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.