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

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.

Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer & Shahzad Ismaily On New Album 'Love In Exile,' Improvisation Versus Co-Construction And The Primacy Of The Pulse

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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Levi Platero
Levi Platero

Photo: Jacob Shije


Meet Levi Platero, A Formidable Guitarist Bringing Blues-Rock To The Navajo Nation

"I don't want to be in some crazy-a— limelight. I don't want to be a superstar," the guitar scorcher tells But limelight or not, Levi Platero's illuminating a path forward for blues-rock in Indigenous communities.

GRAMMYs/Apr 4, 2023 - 03:58 pm

Back in 2022, Levi Platero spoke to about his then-new album, Dying Breed. Two days later, a city bus slammed into his touring van.

The Arizonan blues-rock guitarist, who hails from the Eastern Agency of the Navajo Nation, was on a West Coast tour. After lunch in downtown Portland, kaboom: their van was totaled. When hearing about this close call, something poignant Platero had said came to mind.

"I just want to be able to keep going, man. Especially with blues music, you can kind of play forever," he expressed near the end of the interview. "Not to put down any other musical genres, but I can't see myself being a rap artist at, like, 60 or 70 years old. I can see myself being a blues-rock guy until the day I die."

Looking decades into the future, it's hard not to imagine Platero and his music being buoyed by the community he helped create.

An absolute burner on his instrument — behold Dying Breed highlights like "Fire Water Whiskey" and "Red Wild Woman" as examples — he stands with few others as a blues-rock great in the Navajo Nation. Or just one, in his estimation: Mato Nanji of the band Indigenous, who he affectionately calls "Big Brother." 

Perhaps Platero — who's eyeing a new van, and getting ready to head back into the studio in late spring — will also inspire others in his wake. And the more he sings and plays, the more likely that outcome seems — that his "dying breed" will flourish forever.

Read on for an in-depth interview with Platero about his latest album, how Indigenousness inspires his artistry, and why he "doesn't want to be a superstar — I just love to play."

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Tell me about your background, and the musical community that brought you up.

I grew up in church. My dad was an evangelist. He went out, did things for the church and that kind of community. I would sometimes tag along, but I was getting involved with some of the worship leading and stuff like that. But my dad would write his own tunes, and he would make his own music later on. And I would go out and help him just play drums. I was just in the background area.

Later on, I started playing guitar, and listening to a lot of old gospel tunes and gospel hymns. That's where I got introduced to the blues. And after I learned about the blues, from then on, that's all I ever really listened to. 

Now, a lot of things have changed. I'm out in the world doing my own thing and writing my own music about some things that I feel — not necessarily anything that has to do with the church community. But, that's where I got started.

What's your conception of the blues? To me, it's kind of like the word punk. It can be a certain way of playing power chords, or an entire state of being — an opposition to the status quo. Likewise, the blues can mean 12 bars, or the totality of human angst.

I think it's probably the rawest form of musical emotion that I can feel — that I've ever really felt for myself. But that's only my own opinion. That's my perception of it. I always hear a lot of people say that it's a little redundant, and it's kind of boring and whatnot. But for me, it's something that's just really raw, emotional, really straightforward.

And as far as the lifestyle, I mean, I would have to say that being a part of a blues community, I'm really [grounded among] people who are really respectful. 

And the people who are respected the most are the people who generally [may] not have the most talent, but collectively, they're a great person — they have a great personality. They really enjoy one another's music, and they're really involved in the blues community where they help each other out, or they get each other's gigs, they sit in. 

It's just this really friendly dynamic in that area. Rather enjoyable. I love it.

Living or dead, whether you know them or not, who are the guitarists that formed you?

I have to say my biggest influence was Mato Nanji from Indigenous. They were a Native American blues-rock group back in the day, probably in the early 2000s. They made a really good name for themselves in the blues circuit, and I [had] the opportunity to actually travel and open up for him and also join his band.

I really learned a lot from kind of hanging out with him and just being a part of his group. He's one of my biggest guitar influences and as a person — as a role model.

Otherwise — people who I have not met — I have to say, of course, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan. David Gilmour was a good influence. Doyle Bramhall II — little Doyle, big Doyle.

And then as far as in my community, back in Albuquerque, Darin Goldston — he plays for the Memphis P-Tails. He hosts the blues jam every Wednesday night. Whoever is upcoming and just wants to play some blues, they come out and jam. It's pretty awesome.

And, of course, Ryan McGarvey. If you don't know who that is, he's in the blues-rock circuit. He's a great guy — a pretty influential person.

With all those inspirations on the table, how did you start to develop your own voice on the guitar?

Just being well-seasoned, I guess. Just constantly playing over time. For some people, it doesn't happen right away, to find their own sound. With other people, they have to go through seasons and learn new things, until one day, they really become identifiable just by the first couple of notes they play.

I don't think it was a hard thing for me. I was just playing until it started becoming identifiable to some people's ears.

I'm sure specifically Indigenous influences must make it into your sound in some way.

Yeah, of course. I mean, those drum patterns, those drum beats — they're really similar to all that chain gang stuff they used to do back in the day. Those call-and-repeats and stuff like that.

Sometimes I try to incorporate that into some of the music I have. Indigenous influences are there, as far as jewelry and hats. Even as far as a little bit of graphic design. That stuff definitely makes its way into the fashion part, and the promotion.

Tell me what you were trying to artistically impart with Dying Breed.

I just wanted to put out an album, because I need to. I love writing my own music, and of course, the ultimate goal is to make music that inspires and reaches people — and also inspires Indigenous artists and people at reservations to go after whatever they want to go after.

Because it's like: yeah, there's education on the rez, but as far as outlets — fashion, music, art, film — some of those things don't make it as far as the reservation.

So, just being an Indigenous artist in itself — to be able to write and put out music like that, for others to hear — I guess that's kind of the ultimate accomplishment in what I'm trying to do. Just to keep inspiring people — inspiring my own people, natives all across the U.S.

**Can you talk about your collaborators on Dying Breed?**

That's actually kind of funny, because I'm doing most of the work on the album.

I did all the guitars. I did all the bass guitars. I did the lead vocals. My cousin [Royce Platero] did the drums. I only had my rhythm player [Jacob Shije] play on, like, two tracks, and he was only doing small-fill guitars and that's it. I had a good friend of mine named Tony Orant come in and play keys on two of the songs as well.

As far as all the songs go, I wrote all of them. I composed everything. I came up with the arrangements and the core progressions. I mean, it's all mine.

One of my favorite people and producers right now, a sound engineer who helped me with the album: his name is Ken Riley and he's based out of Albuquerque. He has a really beautiful and awesome old adobe recording studio, right by the Rio Grande. It's called Rio Grande Studios. He's kind of a legend. He's worked with so many artists and still works with big-name, major artists.

I think he recently just worked on Micki Free's album. He worked on a couple of songs with  Santana and Gary Clark Jr. Christone ["Kingfish"] Ingram. He works with some heavy hitters, and I approached him. I was introduced to him by a friend of mine named Felix Peralta. He told me to meet this guy and said, "You need to do your next record here."

So, we finally got to meet, me and Ken, and it just kind of went from there and everything came out really good. I really enjoy this record. It's probably my favorite one that I've done so far.

Levi Platero

*Levi Platero. Photo: Jacob Shije*

Are there any other Indigenous musicians in the blues and/or Americana world that you want to shout out in this interview?

Foremost, as far as blues guitarists: I have to give a shout-out to my — I call him Big Brother. Mato Nanji, and that means "standing bear." He's a big role model, and probably the only other Indigenous blues-rock guitarist out there besides me who is trying to do it.

Anything else you want to mention before we get out of here?

No, I just want to keep playing. I just want to keep doing this — meet more people, keep expanding. I don't want to be in some crazy-a— limelight. I don't want to be a superstar. I just love to play. I just want people to enjoy my music and come vibe at the shows. That's it.

America Has Birthed A Wealth Of Musical Forms. These Indigenous Artists Want To Know Where They Fit Into Them.

Franc Moody
Franc Moody

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.

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:23 pm

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'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

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

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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