meta-scriptBill Frisell On His New Trio Album, Missing Hal Willner & How COVID-19 Robbed Jazz Of Its Rapport |

Bill Frisell Trio

Photo by Monica Jane Frisell


Bill Frisell On His New Trio Album, Missing Hal Willner & How COVID-19 Robbed Jazz Of Its Rapport

'Valentine' is a belated document of the guitarist's chemistry with two old associates

GRAMMYs/Aug 10, 2020 - 08:27 pm

After months of zero live music, Bill Frisell, bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston reunited in June — while socially distanced on a Kensington, Brooklyn, porch. (At least one Yo La Tengo member bore witness.) Being able to jam in public was a relief to the 69-year-old, who admits to being stuck in his own head during quarantine. But there was a slightly awkward moment when they put down their instruments.

"It was like, ‘'Shit! This is really weird. We're not supposed to touch each other?'" the guitarist tells from his home — not far from that makeshift stage — on a sticky late-July morning. "At every single gig we ever play, when we finish, it's a natural reaction that we hug each other. We grab each other. That was just one little strange moment, but basically, it felt so good to play."

Frisell is stumping for his new album Valentine, which arrives August 14. (It's something like his 40th release as a leader, depending on how you count.) The album captures his chemistry with Morgan and Royston, both of whom have been around for years — the former with greats like guitarist Jakob Bro, drummer Paul Motian and pianist Kenny Werner; the latter with altoist Jim Snidero, tenorist Fred Hess and trumpeter Ron Miles. Both have toured with Frisell over the past three.

"This album is all about Rudy and Thomas and the musical relationship I have with them," Frisell said in Valentine's press bio. "There was no evidence of it, so I really wanted to have a document of it, if only to show that it’s real and not this magical thing that I've imagined in my fantasies."

The trio mixes Frisell originals with covers from the Great American Songbook ("What the World Needs Now is Love") and the public domain ("Wagon Wheels"). Valentine concludes with a luminous version of the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome," which — in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain — contains ever more gravity in 2020. caught up with Frisell to discuss his emotional state in quarantine, working with Morgan and Royston, losing his friends Hal Willner and Lee Konitz to COVID-19 and how the socially distanced show came about.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Are you quarantining in New York City?

Yeah, in Brooklyn. I don’t want to complain because I’m really lucky. We have a house pretty far out into Brooklyn where there's trees and space and stuff. I'm lucky to have this house with all my stuff in it. But this is a trip.

For as long as I can remember — I think even before I can remember, even thinking about my mother singing in the house when I was really small — there was some kind of way of interacting with music with other people.

Just about every single day of my life, that’s been the whole deal, up until March 8 — I guess that was when I came back from tour — and then, a couple of days later, everything just shut down. So it’s really strange to be in my own head all the time.

You, Thomas and Rudy have been around a long time. How did those guys come into your sphere?

Rudy's from Denver, where I grew up. I didn’t know him way back then. I'm not sure if you’re familiar with Ron Miles, the trumpet player? I have a long, long relationship with him. He’s also from Denver. The very first time I met Ron, I think it was 1993. I went to Denver and met [him] and did a gig and Rudy was the drummer. I was like, "Oh, man! This guy’s amazing."

That was the beginning of this incredible relationship with Ron, and that’s where I met Rudy. But at the time, Rudy was teaching public school and he really wasn’t into traveling or going out on the road and all that. We played a couple of times [then], but probably 10 or 15 years ago he moved to New York and really changed up his lifestyle. He really wanted to play and go out. So that’s when we really started playing a lot in lots of different circumstances.

Thomas I met in a sort of an on-and-off here-and-there [fashion] being in New York. My friend Joey Baron, the drummer, introduced us. I think he might have still been a student when we first met. We kept running into each other and I’d hear him play in different contexts. I really became a fan. Eventually, we did a rehearsal with Joey Baron, and then there was a session with Kenny Wollesen.

What really got it going strong was the last album I did with Paul Motian before he passed away. Thomas had been playing a lot with Paul and I had a 30-year relationship with Paul. Paul loved him and we did this album together with Petra Haden [2011’s The Windmills of Your Mind]. That was where it was like, "OK, now, this is it. He’s my brother for life."

Somewhere soon after that, Rudy came into the picture. With that, one thing led to another and here we are. We played in all kinds of different combinations and also as a trio a lot for the last few years, but we didn’t have an album. So it just seemed like time to get that [on record] — I wanted to have evidence of this special group.

Speaking of Motian, Valentine’s press bio cites Bill Evans Trio's Sunday at the Village Vanguard as a spiritual antecedent. What about that album speaks to you?

Oh, man. It’s huge. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like… you think of some music that you can almost start taking for granted, maybe. I’m not sure if that’s the right way to put it, but you hear it so much.

Like, think of Louis Armstrong. What if you had never heard that music before and it’s 1927, you walked into a club and heard that. I can't imagine what that would have done to your brain! I think the Bill Evans Trio had some of that. Of course, it’s coming from the whole history, but it made a new blueprint for what folks could do.

When I was in high school, one of the very first jazz — if you want to use that word — concerts I went to was Charles Lloyd. This is January of 1969. The band was Keith Jarrett on piano, Ron McClure on bass and Paul Motian was playing drums.

That right there was one of those moments for me. Hearing Paul for real, in real life, at that point in my life — I would have never imagined that some years later he'd be calling me up on the phone and that Charles Lloyd would be calling me up on the phone and I’d be actually playing with these people. Sometimes it feels like I'm dreaming or something.

You mentioned "the physical mathematics of a trio." "There's so much strength in it — it can lean to one side, but it will stay up," you said. But it's not like any three musicians sound great together, so how would a bad trio make this geometry fail?

[Laughs.] If something goes wrong, it's maybe because one of the pieces is not present. That's the whole thing: listening. If everyone is listening, I feel like nothing can really go wrong, whether it’s a duo or a trio or an orchestra. For me, it works best when my attention is away from myself and it’s focused on the whole picture, focused on the other guys in the band.

When there’s three guys and everyone is really focused on what the group is doing — not just their own self — it’s just the most amazing feeling. And then you have this trust when you take your mind off your own little world. That's what's weird about right now, right? Everyone's sitting at home by themselves in their own minds. That's what's making me a little nuts.

But what I'm saying is, where the music really takes off for me is when I don't need to think about what I’m doing. I just need to be in the space where the music is happening. Then you can really take risks. You know, I was just talking about dreaming. When you're dreaming that you can fly or you come to a big chasm in the earth and you want to jump in and find out what’s in there — in the music, you can do that if you're with folks you know will rescue you.

Bill Frisell in 1995
Photo by Bob Berg/Getty Images

On Harmony, you interpreted songs ranging from Pete Seeger to Lerner and Loewe. On Valentine, you draw from a similar well — there's a Hal David and Burt Bacharach song sharing space with a traditional hymn. To you, how does American folk music connect to the Great American Songbook?

I've always had a problem with how we put [them in separate categories]. I know we need words to describe things and we have to talk about the music, but when we put these labels and names on it it always has the effect of making it smaller than what it really is. To me, they're all part of one thing, whether it’s Beethoven or Monk or Robert Johnson or Jimi Hendrix or Morton Feldman. It's all music and it all fits together in my imagination.

I think as human beings, when you’re really immersed in the music, it takes you to a place where you’re not thinking about what it's called and all that stuff. For me, it’s a big ocean of melodies and it can all coexist.

You wrote "Hour Glass" for a performance of Allen Ginsberg's "Kaddish" staged by the late Hal Willner. Tell me about your relationship with Hal.

Boy, that was fairly early in this whole ordeal that we’re going through. He touched on so much. I met him soon after I moved to New York — I guess it was 1980. That’s a 40-year relationship. I've tried to make a list of all the things I've done with him and it’s dozens and dozens of albums and soundtracks and projects that we did together. It's really almost too much to [list]; we could go on for a few hours of that.

He was huge in my life as a friend and he had such an impact on my music. He gave me so many chances. That's what I’m talking about with a group — when you have trust where you can really take chances, that's where you learn. It seems like in just about everything I did with him, he would set me up in a situation where I wasn’t quite sure. It was always a little bit into the unknown. He had some kind of a trust in me that I didn't realize I had in myself.

He would give me an opportunity and I’m like, "Wow! I don't know if I could do that," but he would just sort of nudge me through the door and I'd deal with it and climb out having learned something new. It was like that for the whole of that 40-year period and it was still going on. I just talked to him a couple of weeks before he passed away and he had all kinds of ideas for the things we were going to be doing.

I keep having those moments: "Oh, I've got to call Hal and tell him about this or that," and I can’t do it now. So that's been really rough. It really made this situation real, just having it that close. Also, Lee Konitz I was close with. He was in his nineties, but still. People are dying from this stuff.

"Levees" and "Electricity" are tied to the director Bill Morrison — the former made it into 2014's The Great Flood and the other was cut from a different film. I’m not familiar with Morrison's films, but it looks like they dovetail with jazz and the avant-garde.

It goes back to the Village Vanguard again. Early in the time when I started to play there in the late 1980s, Bill Morrison was basically a dishwasher at the Village Vanguard. I knew him that way. At some point, he said, "You know, I make these films," and he wanted to use some of my music. That's how we connected.

He's deep in the music and that's how I knew him from the beginning, but I didn't even know he made films. One thing led to another and we’ve done quite a few things together at this point and planned more things in the future.

You should check out his stuff. What he does is really like nothing I've ever seen before. In all his films, music is a huge part of it. It’s hard sometimes to even separate. The music and the film become one thing in what he does.

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About "We Shall Overcome," you said "I'm going to play it until there's no need anymore." Which is kind of beautiful since you play it instrumentally without words to convey the message. Is there righteous power in that song's melody and composition alone?

Oh, yeah, yeah. Definitely. When I'm playing that song or so many other songs, I might not even know all the words. I don't know all the words to all the songs that I play that have words. But the human voice has so much to do with how I play a melody. I'm hearing the sound of a voice in my head while I’m playing my guitar. Or, you know, I’m hearing the words in my head. So it gives you a lot to draw from when you’re playing the song.

I was quoted as saying "I'm going to play that song until it doesn't need to be played anymore," but I realized I’m afraid there may not be a time… I think that song is always going to be necessary. It’s just part of what we have to keep doing. It'd be great if we didn't need to say those things, but I think it's just part of the struggle [that] continues.

There are so many songs that are relevant every single day — "What the World Needs Now is Love," "We Shall Overcome," "A Change is Gonna Come," "The Times They Are A-Changin’," or "Masters of War," unfortunately. "Hard Times," which was written 150 years ago. All those songs are always relevant, so you have to just keep playing them.

Especially right now, as the George Floyd protests persist.

[Softly] Yeah. Yeah.

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You, Thomas and Rudy recently played on a Brooklyn porch while socially distanced. What was that like?

That was incredible! That was the first so-called gig I've had in months and months. It was a relief to finally be with people, playing. Being with my friends.

A friend of ours, Derek Nievergelt, who lives not far from me, he's a bass player and he’ll just go out and start playing on his porch with guys. Thomas lives not far from where I do, too, in Brooklyn. It was just a chance to play. It was spur-of-the-moment. We didn't really know for sure if we were going to play until the night before, knowing that the weather was going to be OK.

But I hope we can do more of that. It’s still going to be a while before [shows can proceed normally]. Actually, in a couple of weeks, we’re going to play at the Village Vanguard, but not with an audience. You know, it’ll be streamed the week after next, I think. I’m looking forward to that.

It was lovely chatting with you, Bill.

I hope you’re staying safe and healthy and all that stuff we’ve been saying. I think we’re going to get through this. Not just the virus, but everything that’s going on. It’s a pretty intense time right now, but I still think we’re going to come out better in the end.

Read More: Gary Burton's Jazz Journey

Sade in 1985
Sade Adu poses in Chicago in 1985.

Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images


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


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


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.

These are wildly different contexts for Lloyd, but they all meet at a meditative nexus. Drink it in as the curtains close on 2023, as you consider where all these virtuosic, forward-thinking musicians will venture to next — "alternative" or not.

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Kendrick Lamar GRAMMY Rewind Hero
Kendrick Lamar

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic


GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016

Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.

GRAMMYs/Oct 13, 2023 - 06:01 pm

Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.

A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.

This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system. 

"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."

Looking for more GRAMMYs news? The 2024 GRAMMY nominations are here!

He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.

"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.

"Hip-hop. Ice Cube. This is for hip-hop," he said. "This is for Snoop Dogg, Doggystyle. This is for Illmatic, this is for Nas. We will live forever. Believe that."

To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood." 

Lamar has since won Best Rap Album two more times, taking home the golden gramophone in 2018 for his blockbuster LP DAMN., and in 2023 for his bold fifth album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers.

Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes. 

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