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We Pass The Ball To Other Ages: Inside Blue Note's Creative Resurgence In The 2020s
Joel Ross

Photo: Lauren Desberg

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We Pass The Ball To Other Ages: Inside Blue Note's Creative Resurgence In The 2020s

The foundational jazz label Blue Note Records has ebbed and flowed over the years, but they’re charging into the 2020s with renewed energy. Streams are way up; fresh talent is being signed left and right. And label president Don Was has a few ideas why.

GRAMMYs/Apr 15, 2022 - 04:31 pm

When Ethan Iverson sent Don Was his new song, the crackle of frying eggs mixed with the sound of Was weeping in awe.

During the frightening early days of the pandemic, pianist and composer Iverson enlisted 44 friends and colleagues — including pianist Marta Sanchez, choreographer Mark Morris and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza — to join in song via an accumulation of voice memos on top of Iverson’s reedy, tenor voice. The tune was "The More it Changes," with the lyrics written by Iverson’s wife, writer Sarah Deming. Despite never being in the same room, they sounded like a small-town congregation — songbooks out, shoulder to shoulder.

As he cooked breakfast, Iverson’s plucky virtual choir "just made me burst out in tears, man," Was tells GRAMMY.com. "It’s one of the most beautiful summations of the eternal nature of music and the musicians who make it." On Zoom, the five-time GRAMMY winner is framed by voluminous dreads, with various wide-brimmed hats perched on instruments and furniture behind him. And as usual, when rhapsodizing about music he deems "staggering," Was zooms out, considering the whole timeline.

"It’s about us being carbon-based life forms — that carbon will just keep going, man," Was says. He raps his desk with his knuckles. "This desk was a tree." And by invoking that natural cycle of permutation and proliferation — matter never being created nor destroyed, only assuming new forms — Was sums up his job. He’s been the president of the almost century-old jazz label Blue Note Records since 2012. And when he examines the history, lineage and ancestry of Blue Note, he finds that change — transformation — is the constant.

He sees that change in Charles Lloyd, the saxophone titan who Was says is playing better at 84 than he did at 34. ("I think I’m coming into my own!" Lloyd recently quipped to Was.) He sees it in Bill Frisell, the lopsided guitar genius who still endlessly challenges himself at 71.

It permeates his day-to-day operations at the label, too. As a musician himself, Was knows the value of making adjustments when needed — like when he corrected an inconsistent batch of audiophile vinyl from the label’s 75th-anniversary campaign, without fuss or ego. Being open to adjustments is how you evolve. And Blue Note has never stopped evolving, even when some years or decades are stronger than others.

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

Like the luminaries in its roster do in their craft from time to time, Blue Note is experiencing a growth spurt — despite already making innumerable contributions to the cultural canon. Since being founded by German immigrants Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff in 1939, the label has accumulated a wealth of musical treasures from various generations, scenes and subgenres.

But as recent developments have shown, Blue Note isn’t a "dusty museum" of ancient history  — Was’s words — but a still-dynamic entity with plenty of surprises left in it.

"It seemed like in every era, the artists that were signed to Blue Note were artists who had absorbed the traditions, understood the foundations of the music that came before, but pushed the boundaries and turned it into something new," Was says. "They turned it upside down, maybe, and did something brand new with it."

And by adding bricks to Blue Note’s architecture every day, newcomers to the label are doing the same thing.

Building On Tradition With New Signees

The most conspicuous sign of development at Blue Note is its intriguing array of new signees, marking another boom period for the label at the dawn of the 2020s.

Over the last few years, musicians at the helm of the New York scene — saxophonists Melissa Aldana and Immanuel Wilkins, pianists Gerald Clayton and Ethan Iverson, vibraphonist Joel Ross, and guitarist Julian Lage — have joined jazz’s arguably most prestigious family. What explains all these new notches in the Blue Note lineage?

"Probably the pandemic — more time to listen!" Was replies with a hearty laugh. Granted, they’ve always had an ebb and flow of new arrivals and folks moving on. But this latest class of musicians has him particularly enthused. Speaking to Was, one doesn’t get the impression of a honcho selling you something, but a pal who’s an authentic music fan. Even the mere evocation of Aldana’s tone on the horn seems to send shivers down his spine.

But back to the question. Is it really just that Was had "more time to listen"? The answer is more complex, of course. And it has to do with the cash flow from Blue Note’s voluminous catalog, which includes albums that represent the apogee of the artform — by John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Hank Mobley, Kenny Burrell, Lee Morgan, Andrew Hill, and scores of other leading lights.

Read More: Hank Mobley's Soul Station At 60: How The Tenor Saxophonist's Mellow Masterpiece Inspires Jazz Musicians In 2020

Was and his colleagues are always finding ways to present the Blue Note catalog in fresh and innovative ways. Their Tone Poet audiophile vinyl series, which highlights deeper selections with cutting-edge sound quality, is a particular hit; Was says they sold half a million units last year. "We could have done more, except we couldn’t get enough records pressed," Was adds. "But it’s looking better this year."

Plus, a certain singer/songwriter, signed to Blue Note at the turn of the millennium, helps keep the operation flush. "Norah Jones has really helped us to underwrite new music at the rate we’ve released — which is at least one thing a month, sometimes two things a month," Was explains. (Blue Note put out Jones' first holiday album, I Dream of Christmas, last fall.)

Take Jones’ commercial appeal with increasingly detailed and dynamic reissues of agreed-upon classics (like Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch! and Joe Henderson’s Page One) and deep cuts by well-known names (like Grant Green’s Feelin’ the Spirit and Stanley Turrentine’s Rough ‘n Tumble), and you’ve got a healthy cash flow for embracing and nurturing rising talent.

"It’s a lot of new music to subsidize," Was continues. "If you were going to start a jazz record label without a catalog, it’d be an almost impossible business."

At Blue Note’s weekly A&R meeting, Was and his colleagues comb through new music — both what they get in their inboxes and who they’re hearing murmurs about. Some of it’s great — even impressive — but they have to pass on the vast majority of it. So what’s the "wow factor" that makes Was bolt up and sign someone? To answer that, he digs into his decades as a musician, producer, record executive and all-around industry cat.

That Ineffable Something

A quarter-century ago, Was found himself producing an album by Garth Brooks. He knew Brooks as the "biggest star in the world" back then — was mightily talented and a great live act. But something ineffable happened in the studio: "He went to do his vocal, and his vocal jumped," Was recalls, comparing the line of speakers to a 50-yard line on a football field. "It was like he was behind me."

He’d only experienced that phenomenon with a handful of artists — Aretha Franklin, Mick Jagger, Bonnie Raitt. "I’ve seen [Jagger] play to 100,000 people. I saw him play to a million people in Rio, man," Was says. "If you’re far back, he’s an inch tall." He leans his scruffy visage into the camera, making eye contact: "But you feel like he’s talking right to you."

And that ability to jump — with their voice, horn, or whatever their instrument is — is what separated Melissa Aldana, Immanuel Wilkins, Gerald Clayton, Joel Ross and Julian Lage from the rest. And it’s less edifying to comb through the forensics of who met who, and when, and where, than to examine how certain Blue Note signees act as hubs of talent.

Thelonious Monk was one. Herbie Hancock is one. So is pianist Jason Moran, who recorded for Blue Note for years before striking out on his own. And so is Ross, a vibraphonist only in his late twenties.

Ross released his third Blue Note album, The Parable of the Poet, on April 15 — and it’s by far his most ambitious to date. A seven-movement work featuring heavy hitters such as alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, tenor saxophonist Maria Grand, and trumpeter Marquis Hill, the album represents a high watermark and an enticing hint as to how expansive Ross’ vision could become.

"I’ve just been about creating music with my friends, in general, and like-minded individuals," Ross tells GRAMMY.com, noting that some of these connections date back to high school. "And now that I have some opportunities to create some music and open some spaces, I’m just like, ‘I know these great musicians. I want to play with them. Also, Don, you should listen to them."

One of these friends and collaborators happens to be Ross’s best friend: Wilkins, who’s a few years younger. In Jan. 2022, Wilkins released his second album on Blue Note, The 7th Hand; Was hails it a work of sophistication and profundity. "He’s a deep thinker. There’s a conceptual foundation behind what he’s doing," Was says. "But you don’t have to know that to feel the music."

While recording for Blue Note, Wilkins feels a sense of pressure — the good kind. "​​I think the pressure comes from the canon, the catalog and the archive. It's just like thinking of all these musicians who have come through Blue Note and all of my favorite records that have been on Blue Note," Wilkins tells GRAMMY.com. "It's a pressure that I welcome and love, and it forces me to make sure that I produce music at the highest level possible for myself at all times."

Tenor saxophonist Aldana, who hails from Santiago, Chile, felt that importance too, while recording her 2022 debut album for Blue Note, 12 Stars. In her case, the impetus was more to be herself than to be perfect — and it resulted in intensely personal playing.

"I feel more connected to myself and my own imperfections — and I've discovered that it's the same process with music," she said in a press release. "Embracing everything I hear, everything I play — even mistakes — is more meaningful than perfection." And speaking to GRAMMY.com, Aldana reflects on her experience thus far with Blue Note.

"I haven’t experienced anything but extreme support," she says, "allowing me to record the music the way I want, like really supporting my vision." It’s this sense of solidarity, of being backed up, that allowed Aldana to take the biggest swing she could on 12 Stars. She knew the results would be part of the canon that got her going — Sonny Rollins’ A Night at the Village Vanguard chief among them. And that’s a weight to carry.

"The most meaningful thing is to be part of that legacy, to be honest," Aldana says.

Read More: Tenor Saxophonist Melissa Aldana On Emerging From Chaos, Finding Her Chilean Identity & Her Blue Note Debut 12 Stars

Speaking to GRAMMY.com in 2021 after releasing his Blue Note debut, Squint, Julian Lage laid down what signing to the label means to a jazz musician. 

“Blue Note is the mecca of recorded music. All the greatest records come from Blue Note,” he said. “So, I think there's always a sense that as a jazz musician, it would be a dream to be on Blue Note because they cultivate musicians, support innovation and understand jazz as an artform — the social constructs that exist within jazz and the fact that it is an abstract art.”

Pianist Gerald Clayton, who made his Blue Note debut in 2020, tapped into the rich ore of Blue Note's legacy with his 2022 follow-up, Bells on Sand. Most notably, in the majestic "Peace Invocation," an intergenerational duet with Charles Lloyd — the legend who joked he was "coming into his own." "It’s just staggering, man," Was says of the track, as well as three other duets with his father, bassist John Clayton.

While meditating on the significance of Lloyd and his participation in "Peace Invocation," Clayton — a six-time GRAMMY nominee — considers the entire lineage that came before him.

"To feel the connection to Lloyd and to the legends of the music that recorded for the label, who aren’t even with us anymore," Clayton tells GRAMMY.com, "to feel that you’re somehow, in an official history book way, sort of connected to that, is a really honorable, wonderful feeling."

Celebrating The Past, Investing In The Future

In addition to welcoming new talent, Blue Note will honor both their history and potential in innovative ways in coming years.

The label recently announced Blue Note Africa, a co-creation with Universal that spotlights the multitudes of its continental namesake, with inaugural release In the Spirit of Ntu, a majestic album by South African pianist Nduduzo Makhathini. The label also recently acquired an archive of tens of thousands of Francis Wolff photographs from their early history, which includes alternate takes of classic jazz images that might make diehards flip. (At press time, they’re mum on plans for the images.)

Iverson is thrilled that Blue Note has the financial leverage to stay robust into the 2020s and beyond. "[Don has] got the leeway to invest in the future," Iverson tells GRAMMY.com. "And if he was a suit — just a business guy — he wouldn’t bother. But Don is actually interested in the future, and young musicians, and he’s like, 'Yeah, let’s sign the best and brightest. Give them a shot.'"

And on a personal level, Iverson finds Was a breath of fresh air in an evermore strangulating, formatted world. "As the world’s gotten smaller — as the internet has made everything sort of like a steel bearing, that’s one smooth surface, and everyone moves in a certain lockstep — I really love those old-school New Yorkers that are always fresh and idiosyncratic."

On Iverson’s 2022 Blue Note debut, Every Note is True, the communal "The More it Changes" leads off a program by a sumptuous, intergenerational trio — Iverson, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jack DeJohnette. With a simple, diatonic approach to harmony and a classical sense of swing, the record is a psychological balm, a cozy fireplace for the brain during traumatic times. Which makes it perfect for Blue Note.

"Through COVID, people have been treating our catalog like comfort food," Was says. "It’s the same way you eat a grilled-cheese sandwich and Campbell’s tomato soup because your mom made it for you when you were a little kid and it makes you feel good in hard times."

With this momentum, Blue Note seems poised to embrace the future of music while deftly stewarding the treasures of the past. And Iverson’s "The More it Changes" seems to sum up the give-and-take through the decades and the label’s potential to keep the lamps of tradition trimmed and burning for a long time.

"The more it changes, the more it stays the same," the rough-hewn choir sings, bound by common purpose and undeterred by global turbulence. "We pass the ball to other ages; it’s how we play the game." At Blue Note, the ball rolls forward unabated; the game has rarely been this much fun.

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A Tribute In Black To Johnny Cash

A star-studded roster of GRAMMY-winning talent celebrates the music and 80th birthday of Johnny Cash in Austin, Texas

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

Though Johnny Cash passed away in 2003, he's having a very good year in 2012. The latest in a series of events honoring the man in black — an 80th-birthday tribute titled We Walk The Line: A Celebration Of The Music Of Johnny Cash — drew a slew of GRAMMY-winning performers to Austin, Texas, for a lively Friday-night show on April 20 at Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater.

Top billing went to Cash's surviving Highwaymen brethren, GRAMMY winners Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, who teamed with Shooter Jennings (son of late GRAMMY-winning Highwayman Waylon Jennings) and Jamey Johnson in a reunion of sorts on the song "Highwayman." Under a large banner bearing an image of Cash strumming a guitar, flanked by two silhouettes, Nelson also teamed with GRAMMY winner Sheryl Crow on "If I Were A Carpenter."

Crow sounded almost as if she were addressing Cash when she joked to Nelson, "I would definitely have your baby — if I could. If I didn't have two others of my own. And if you weren't married. And if I wasn't friends with your wife." 

Audience members cheered lustily in approval, as they did throughout most of the show, a taped-for-DVD benefit for the childhood muscular dystrophy foundation Charley's Fund. Just hours earlier, many of them had watched as Nelson helped unveil his new statue in front of the theater, which sits on a street also named after him.

The event was produced by Keith Wortman with GRAMMY-winning producer Don Was serving as musical director. Was recruited Buddy Miller, Greg Leisz, Kenny Aronoff, and new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Ian McLagan of the Faces as the house band. The handpicked all-star roster of performers ranged from Iron & Wine's Sam Beam, Brandi Carlile, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Andy Grammer, Amy Lee of Evanescence, and Pat Monahan of Train to Ronnie Dunn, Shelby Lynne, Old 97's lead singer Rhett Miller, Lucinda Williams, and even Austin-based actor Matthew McConaughey, who, in addition to emceeing, sang "The Man Comes Around."

"We wanted a real broad, diverse group of artists," Wortman said backstage. "With Cash, you're as likely to find his music in a punk rock music fan, a heavy metal fan and a Nashville music fan, so he's not just a country music guy." 

GRAMMY winner Monahan, who sang Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through The Night," commented before the show, "I think of Johnny Cash as a style, as you would think of clothing, or music or whatever. He was his own thing. No can can really describe Johnny Cash entirely. 

"And no one could deliver a song quite like him," continued Monahan. "He sang hundreds of other songwriters' songs and he made those songwriters important because of the way he delivered what they were saying. There's not much that I don't respect about him, and I told his son [John Carter Cash] earlier that I'm almost more inspired by the love for his family than his music."

Lynne, who won the Best New Artist GRAMMY in 2000, sang "Why Me Lord," another song penned by Kristofferson, and delivered a spirited duet with Monahan on "It Ain't Me Babe," said Cash has influenced "all of us."

"We appreciate the majestic rebellion that Johnny gave us all in the music business. And he's also one of the great American icons of all time," she added.

Among the acts who earned the loudest applause in a night full of high-volume appreciation was the GRAMMY-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, the bluegrass quartet re-exposing the genre's African-American roots. Their rendition of "Jackson" was among many highlights. Earlier, co-founder Dom Flemons revealed the personal inspiration of Cash's catalog.

"Johnny Cash's music has had an impact on me as a rock and roll singer, a country singer, as a folk music performer and great interpreter of song. I just love everything that he's done," said Flemons.

Bandmate Hubby Jenkins added, "Johnny Cash was really great about putting emotional investment into every song that he sang."

Co-founder Rhiannon Giddens said Cash’s core was his voice and his subject matter, and no matter how much production was added, it never diluted his message. 

Miller, who named his band after "Wreck Of The Old '97," a song popularized by Cash, said their intent was to sound like "Johnny Cash meets the Clash." He also recalled always picking "Ring Of Fire," a classic inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 1999, on the tabletop jukebox during childhood visits to a Dallas diner. 

"I didn't know what it was about, but I knew that the guy who was singing it was singing it with everything he had," said Miller, dressed in black in homage to "one of my all-time heroes." "And there was so much heart behind it, and so much conviction. And nobody could sell a song like Johnny Cash. He meant every word he said, and if he didn't mean it, he made it sound like he meant it."

(Austin-based journalist Lynne Margolis currently contributes to American Songwriter, NPR's Song of the Day and newspapers nationwide, as well as several regional magazines and NPR-affiliate KUT-FM's "Texas Music Matters." A contributing editor to The Ties That Bind: Bruce Springsteen from A To E To Z, she has also previously written for Rollingstone.com and Paste magazine.)

Cécile McLorin Salvant On Triangulating Grief, Longing & Hope With New Album 'Ghost Song': "That's The Moment Where Your Imagination Takes Flight"
Cécile McLorin Salvant

Photo: Shawn Michael Jones

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Cécile McLorin Salvant On Triangulating Grief, Longing & Hope With New Album 'Ghost Song': "That's The Moment Where Your Imagination Takes Flight"

For singer/songwriter and visual artist Cécile McLorin Salvant, loss — which so many of us suffered during the pandemic — is a prism. And on her phantasmagorical new album 'Ghost Song,' she turns it in the light to stunning effect.

GRAMMYs/Mar 13, 2022 - 05:40 pm

Grief. If there was only one word to describe the past two years of enduring the pandemic, it would be "grief."

In addition to grieving loved ones who have died because of the coronavirus, many of us have rued the loss of social gatherings, traveling, job security, and stable mental and physical health, among other crucial things. Coinciding with all that loss is our longing for either pre-pandemic times or hope for a better tomorrow. And on her phantasmagorical new album, Ghost Song — out March 4 on Nonesuch — Cécile McLorin Salvant articulates how grief, longing and hope are facets of the same prism.

Although she recorded the album during late 2020 and early 2021, the three-time GRAMMY-winning jazz singer/songwriter and visual artist (dig her vivid work on the cover of Melissa Aldana's 12 Stars) doesn't explicitly address the pandemic. Instead, most of her songs address affairs of the heart and mind.

Salvant conveys the maddening feeling of isolation and being trapped in one's thoughts on her haunting original, "I Lost My Mind," the desire to flee an oppressive romance with "Obligation" and the anguish of a crumbled relationship on "Ghost Song." The album also offers some striking covers, like Kate Bush's extravagant pop hit, "Wuthering Heights," Sting's cinematic "Until" and Gregory Porter's soothing soul-jazz ballad, "No Love Dying."  

Salvant's penchant for imbuing her work with literary references then delivering them in inventive, deeply personal ways that are empathetic and translucent reaches a height on Ghost Song. References to Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, and Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo intermingle with selections from The Wizard of Oz and Robyn O'Neil's "Modern Arts Notes" podcast. 

She ventures beyond her usual piano/bass/drums setting too. By incorporating somewhat unconventional jazz instruments such as the pipe organ, banjo, and lute, Ghost Song also finds Salvant singing in a grander aural environment than ever.

Just days before the release of Ghost Song and before embarking on a month-long European tour in Sweden, Norway, Austria, Germany, Denmark, and the Czech Republic, Salvant spoke with GRAMMY.com about her creative process and artistic decisions in crafting Ghost Song.

Talk about the creative decision and process of singing in a new sonic environment.

I wanted to have different sonic environments. I wanted to have a little bit of field recordings, some clean studio sounds, and echoing church. I really wanted to play with the different colors of environments and contexts, because that's how I listen to music. This is what I like as a listener — a lot of different textures. So, we were trying to go for that to an extent. 

But it's quite different from what I've done in the past. We recorded with great studio microphones but also with cell phones. Children recorded themselves on cell phones in their homes. I recorded my nieces in my sister's house on the cell phone. Then we recorded inside the St. Malachy's Church in Manhattan. So, there were a lot of different textures to play with. 

Talk about the creative choices of some of the instruments such as pipe organ, banjo, lute, and Latin percussion.

There's nothing calculated. It's all something that's reflective of my life and the people around me. For instance, something like the pipe organ is there just because of [pianist] Aaron Diehl, who plays the pipe organ on the album. He has such a love for that instrument; and he kind of introduced it to me. He took me to my first pipe organ concert. And I really feel in love [with the pipe organ] as well. So, I thought it would be fun to do something with him playing the organ. 

What about some of the Afro-Latin percussion?

The percussion parts came through an actual band that I played with at the Village Vanguard. It was one of the last concerts before the pandemic. It's almost less about the instruments; and more about the people who played them. So, the instruments like the banjo, the percussion, the flute, the piano — that band, which appears a couple of times on the album — was the band that I was with at the Village Vanguard right before everything shut down. 

I really wanted to record and capture that moment with that band because it was such an inspired experiment — putting together all these instruments that I really love with no bass, which was a bit strange. I just wanted to test it out. We finished it out feeling like we really found a band sound together as we were playing two concerts a night for a full week. We felt like we were cut off when the pandemic started because suddenly, we couldn't play with each other. So, it almost felt like the studio was an opportunity to revisit that experiment and continue that moment.

It's very sentimental. It's also very natural. It wasn't anything calculated; it was very intuitive. This album is so much about intuition, memory, nostalgia. So, it just felt right that we would record together.

Talk more about the themes you wanted to address in Ghost Song. A lot of these songs touch upon grief and the fleeting nature of romantic love.

I've always gravitated toward songs that are about longing and desire – more about wanting than about love itself. It's about that moment before you get something or after something has been taken away from you. That's the moment where your imagination takes flight; you start to build stories and try to fill absences with these stories. And that is something that I'm so excited about. I'm fascinated by it. I think it's such a big part of our lives. It just made sense to try to synthesize that idea of ghosts. 

Explain how the works of Proust, Brontë, and Dumas filter into the album.

There are ways in which you can't have control over what filters into your work. You sometimes think you have control on that as a songwriter. You can say, "Let me transcribe this and see if I can make something similar or let me keep this [literature] in mind." But I think ultimately the most real stuff is that stuff that happens through osmosis — when it just becomes a part of your life and culture, and you don't necessarily actively think about it. 

There is no coincidence that something like Wuthering Heights and A la recherche du temps perdu are heavily about memory, thinking, neurosis, and [the act of] really spiraling in your thoughts, memories, self-consciousness and desires — this album is about that.

But that the same time, I wonder if I read those books because I was already attracted to those notions; and I wanted to read something that felt familiar and were better versions of things that I think of, because [those books] contain more eloquent and elegant ways of distilling these really specific feelings that I have, and many other people have.

Talk about the creative process of pairing "Optimistic Voices" from The Wizard of Oz with Gregory Porter's "No Love Dying."

Going back to the idea of things being very intuitive – that's number one. I can't overstate that a lot of this resulted from just feeling different songs. But when you start tying some songs together, you realize "Optimistic Voices" and "No Love Dying" are both different approaches to optimism and hope. When I look at a song like "Optimistic Voices" — this is the song they sing in a poppy field in The Wizard of Oz. 

One could argue that they are high on some psychedelic trip because poppies are opium. The singers are manic and hallucinating. They are so lost and desperate to find their way home that they've become crazy. So, they sing this song when they finally see Emerald City. It's almost too good to be true.  So, that's one side of it.

Then you have this other song that's about optimism but also incorporates death, bones, sadness, gloom. I felt like those two ideas were so complementary.  

Are there any songs you love but you believe that you can't yet render properly? If so, what are they?

That is such a good question. There are so many that it's hard to choose one. What happens for me a lot of times is that if I really adore a song, I hesitate to sing it, because I feel like it's going to ruin it for me. Because suddenly, I'm singing it many times or making an arrangement of it like I'm dissecting it. Sometimes I just want to enjoy the song as a listener.

So, I think it's less about me being afraid of rendering a song, because I'm afraid of rendering every song. I don't think I can get away with anything. I just suck it up and try. It's more that I'm afraid of ruining a song for me.

Talk about "Obligation." It's one of my favorite songs. The lyrics remind me of some of the sentiments Abbey Lincoln sang, but some of the inspiration came from Robyn O'Neil's podcast.

I love that you mention Abbey Lincoln, because she's the reason that I started writing songs in the first place. I was not at all in that mindset; I didn't think I could write a song. Then I started listening to Abbey Lincoln. 

She deceptively makes you feel like you can write a song. I thought, "Maybe I should write something that is personal to me." I think that it's a sign of her generosity as an artist and as a songwriter, because she encourages the listener to express themselves. So, she is the reason I started writing. She's a huge part of the reason why I started writing songs. 

"Obligation" is sort of my take on something my friend Robyn O'Neill says often in her podcasts, which is "expectations are premeditated resentments."

I understand that on "Dead Poplar" you also got inspiration from that podcast. Talk about that song.

That song is basically me setting to music a letter written by [photographer] Alfred Stieglitz to his wife Georgia O'Keefe. He wrote her this letter, which was very mundane and about him going through his day. Then all of sudden, he goes into this super poetic language that hit me so hard that I started crying the first time I read it.  

Then what I ended up doing was that I wrote the letter out on posits and put it out on my piano. I set it to music actually not necessarily because I wanted to make a song on my record, but more because I wanted to memorize it. I find that singing is the best memorization tool that we have. It's one of the first mnemonic devices. 

So, I just set it to music for myself and also because it was on my piano. Then little by little it became clear that if I wanted this record to feel like a diary — which is what I wanted: like you were opening pages of my journal — that song had to be in there.

Talk about the impact of receiving the MacArthur Genius Fellowship ($625,000) and a Doris Duke Grant (worth up to $275,000) in 2020 for artists such as yourself in terms of actualizing new goals and just survival.

The impact is changing for me as time goes by. When I initially got the fellowship, the first reaction was "This couldn't come at a better time!" after I had lost all the gigs for the remainder of the year [because of the pandemic]. We didn't know when we were going to play again. There was no source of income. So, we were panicking as musicians. So, that was the first reaction. 

Now, as time has gone by, and we are going to play live again and things are coming back a little bit, I can look at receiving these grants as encouragement to continue pushing myself through boundaries and try to actually think like an artist without worrying about expectations of other people. 

Really challenging myself was a real big part of it. And then I started thinking about projects on a larger scale and the ways that I can include more people in what I do. I can hire more people. I can teach more people. I can really start thinking about giving back in whatever ways that I can — whether that's through education or collaborating with people. It's huge; it's just such an honor.

Tenor Saxophonist Melissa Aldana On Emerging From Chaos, Finding Her Chilean Identity & Her Blue Note Debut 12 Stars

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Blue Note Records Turns 75

Venerable jazz label's 75th anniversary festivities include a new exhibit at the GRAMMY Museum

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

(On March 25 the GRAMMY Museum will launch Blue Note: The Finest In Jazz, a new exhibit commemorating Blue Note Records' 75th anniversary. For more information, visit www.grammymuseum.org.)

Celebrating its 75th anniversary, Blue Note Records launched a full slate of festivities in 2014 with a bang. At a special anniversary concert on Jan. 8 at Town Hall in New York, GRAMMY winner Robert Glasper and fellow pianist Jason Moran paid tribute to the label's earliest roots — Albert Ammons and Meade "Lux" Lewis, whose recordings constituted the label's first titles in 1939 — with a medley of the boogie-woogie pianists' tunes. The pair took similar liberties with songs from some of the label's iconic touchstones, including Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Ornette Coleman, as well as Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me," a song that was co-produced by Blue Note's current president, Don Was.    

Blue Note's celebration was augmented at the 56th GRAMMY Awards on Jan. 26 when two of the label's artists took home statues. Shorter won Best Improvised Jazz Solo for "Orbits" and Gregory Porter picked up Best Jazz Vocal Album honors for Liquid Spirit.

"[Winning a GRAMMY with Blue Note Records] was extraordinary, based on the fact I used to collect the records and on the history of that company," says Porter, whose Liquid Spirit is his first recording for the label.

Porter and Shorter represent two of the label's countless successes. Founded in 1939 by German immigrants Alfred Lion and photographer Francis Wolff with funding by artistic and political gadfly Max Margulis, Blue Note Records has been at the forefront of nearly every trend, school and advance in the evolution of jazz. In the process, the label has served as the home for luminary artists such as Sidney Bechet, Chick Corea, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Horace Silver, and Miles Davis, among others.

Optometrist/engineer Rudy Van Gelder, who was honored with a Recording Academy Trustees Award in 2012, mixed an unprecedented number of jazz classics for the label, including works by Bud Powell, Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, and Monk. The iconic album artwork, designed by commercial artist Reid Miles, further cemented the label as the gold standard of jazz.

Beginning in 1984, after two decades of bouncing from owner to owner, Blue Note Records was resuscitated by Bruce Lundvall, also a past Trustees Award recipient, as part of the launch of EMI Manhattan Records. He signed musicians from the classic period such as McCoy Tyner as well as new jazz artists, including GRAMMY winners Terence Blanchard and Joe Lovano.

"I had the opportunity to not only make records but put ensembles together and tour the music and really live in the music I was recording," says Lovano, who has the longest tenure with the label with approximately two dozen releases in 25 years.

The GRAMMY Museum will help commemorate the label's 75th anniversary with Blue Note Records: The Finest In Jazz, a special exhibit that will feature classic album artwork and photographs, interactive displays and artifacts such as a baby grand piano that belonged to Monk. The exhibit will launch March 25 in conjunction with An Evening With Blue Note Records, an event featuring Blanchard and Was.

GRAMMY Museum Executive Director Bob Santelli says "[we] wanted to give our exhibit a point of view: to [show] how a label can really impact the course of a music form, particularly in jazz. Blue Note did that."

Blue Note will dig into its archives with a 100-album vinyl reissue initiative, commencing on March 25. The reissues will include classic jazz albums such as Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers' Free For All, Coltrane's Blue Train, Eric Dolphy's Out To Lunch!, Shorter's Speak No Evil, and Larry Young's Unity. On the other side of the technology spectrum, a Blue Note Spotify app allows music fans to discover music spanning the entire history of the label.

From May 3–11 the label will host Blue Note At 75 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., capped by Blue Note At 75: The Concert on May 11. As the culminating event of Blue Note's 75th anniversary celebration, artists from the label's present and past roster will perform, including Moran, Shorter and Norah Jones — whose Blue Note debut, 2002's Come Away With Me, netted five statues at the 45th GRAMMY Awards — among other surprise special guests.

While Blue Note's current roster contains a formidable pool of jazz talent, in recent years the label has traced the next step in its evolution by extending its reach outside jazz, evidenced by signings such as Rosanne Cash, Anita Baker, Elvis Costello And The Roots, Willie Nelson, Gov't Mule, and Van Morrison, among others.

"It's not a stretch at all to sign Van Morrison. When he steps up to the mic he delivers the goods as solid as Wayne Shorter delivers the goods," says Was, who was appointed label president in 2012. "It's just different modes and scales, but they are both pouring their lives out.

"[Alfred Lion talked] about the pursuit of authentic music. At that moment it was hot jazz," added Was, referencing a "manifesto" written by the label's co-founder. "He couldn't foresee what Blue Note would release in the '60s but he [was] still looking for authentic music of uncompromising quality; a focus on inspiration rather than the sensational."

(Dave Helland's first Blue Note purchase was either The Amazing Bud Powell or Art Blakey's The Witch Doctor.)  

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Bob Dylan Named 2015 MusiCares Person Of The Year

GRAMMY winner to be honored at star-studded GRAMMY Week gala on Feb. 6, 2015; Norah Jones, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, and Jack White to perform at tribute concert

GRAMMYs/Jan 27, 2015 - 01:26 am

Ten-time GRAMMY winner Bob Dylan will be honored as the 2015 MusiCares Person of the Year on Friday, Feb. 6, 2015, two days prior to the 57th Annual GRAMMY Awards.

Proceeds from the 25th annual benefit gala dinner and concert will provide essential support for MusiCares, which ensures that music people have a place to turn in times of financial, medical and personal need.

Performers at the tribute concert will include GRAMMY winners Beck; Crosby, Stills & Nash; Norah Jones; Tom Jones; Los Lobos; John Mellencamp; Willie Nelson; Bonnie Raitt; Eddie Vedder; Jack White; and Neil Young; as well as singer/songwriter John Doe. Three-time GRAMMY-winning producer and recent Emmy winner Don Was will be the evening's musical director. Additional performers will be announced shortly.

"In celebrating the 25th anniversary of our MusiCares Person of the Year tribute, it is most fitting that we are honoring Bob Dylan, whose body of creative work has contributed to America's culture, as well as that of the entire world, in genuinely deep and lasting ways," said Neil Portnow, President/CEO of the MusiCares Foundation and The Recording Academy.

"Bob Dylan's songwriting ability is unmatched, and it will be an extraordinary evening to hear his work showcased by such a remarkable group of artists," said Bill Silva, Chair of the MusiCares Foundation Board.

The MusiCares Person of the Year tribute ceremony is one of the most prestigious events held during GRAMMY Week. The celebration culminates with the 57th Annual GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015. The telecast will be broadcast live on the CBS Television Network at 8 p.m. ET/PT.