Photo: Joan Carroll
Gerry Gibbs Assembled Jazz Legends To Honor His Father's Music. The Result Contained Chick Corea's Final Recordings.
Jazz drummer Gerry Gibbs drove 15,000 miles around America to make 'Songs From My Father,' a homage to his dad Terry Gibbs’ music. One of the greats who contributed was Chick Corea—and unbeknownst to everyone, these were the last recordings he’d ever make
North, south, east and west on the interstates of a pandemic-gripped America, Gerry Gibbs drove 15,000 miles to make some music. In the evenings, he and his wife, Kyeshie, camped out in the car and dozed off to DVDs of Kojak, Starsky and Hutch and The Mod Squad. They were too apprehensive about COVID-19 to board a flight or sleep in a hotel. So, with his record label's financial assistance, they drove and drove and drove.
"I'm not touring. I'm not working. I just sit at home every day wondering what's going to happen," Gibbs told GRAMMY.com back in 2020 while driving through the middle of the desert. "Everything I ever had doesn't exist anymore." So he hurtled between New York, California, Texas and Florida throughout the first wave. "All to make this stupid record," Gibbs says in 2021, cheekily and modestly. Because what he and his associates made is a doozy.
He was driving all over creation to make Songs From My Father (released August 6), a homage to the songbook of his dad, the pioneering vibraphonist and bebop luminary Terry Gibbs. It features four permutations of his Thrasher Dream Trio, drawing from a Rolodex of cream-of-the-crop musicians: bassists Ron Carter, Christian McBride and Buster Williams, and pianists Chick Corea, Kenny Barron, Patrice Rushen, Geoff Keezer and Larry Goldings.
By now, in music, the anecdotes about recording in lockdown are starting to bleed together. Plus, jazz is a Möbius strip of lineages, so a son paying tribute to his father is as natural as can be. That said, Songs From My Father stands out for multiple reasons.
First, it sheds light on Terry, an underappreciated architect of America's music. Second, it’s a testament to Gerry's indefatigable creativity. And—perhaps most enticingly—it contains the final recordings of the late pianistic legend and 25-time GRAMMY winner Chick Corea.
Terry Gibbs with bassist Eddie Safranski and the 1953 Metronome All-Stars. Photo: PoPsie Randolph/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
The Swinging Mastery Of Terry Gibbs
At almost 97, Terry is a hilarious fount of stories, and his 2003 memoir, Good Vibes: A Life in Jazz, is a treasure trove of Brooklynite musings. The man born Julius Gubenko in 1924 had a front-row seat to bebop and big band at their peaks, playing with Benny Goodman, Buddy Rich, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie and scores of other household names.
Gerry was born in 1964, and his father didn’t steer him toward becoming a musician at all. "He's had his own mind since he was a kid," Terry tells GRAMMY.com. "I never told him what to like. He went from liking Buddy Rich to liking Elvin Jones, and that's a big jump going from straight-ahead to a guy who was playing pretty far out. But he liked it. That's where his head was."
Terry and Gerry Gibbs. Photo courtesy of Gerry Gibbs.
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Gerry became a music obsessive by his own volition. "You remember those blue-jean-colored folders you put all your manilla folders in when you were in class?" Gerry asks GRAMMY.com. "On the front, I would just put 'Chick Corea. Ron Carter. Freddie Hubbard. Miles Davis. John Coltrane. Kenny Barron.' And I would just stare at the names on the books and say, 'These are my heroes. These are the people I want to play with one day.'"
Terry didn't just play with the titans of bebop; he provided a platform for brilliant Black female pianists. One, Alice Coltrane (née McLeod), is experiencing an overdue reappraisal. Another, Terry Pollard—an equal talent on vibraphone who performed alongside him in swinging mallet contests—remains bizarrely obscure given her considerable skills.
About Alice Coltrane, "Before everything she had done with John, she was a swinging bebopper, playing in all these Detroit bands and in Terry Gibbs' band," saxophonist Jeff Lederer told GRAMMY.com in 2020. "She was a great, great bebopper." As for Pollard, "I feel like it's really important to acknowledge her when talking about this music," Geoff Keezer tells GRAMMY.com.
Terry Gibbs and Terry Pollard. Photo courtesy of Gerry Gibbs.
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Terry played from age 12 until his retirement at 92. In that time, he made more than 90 solo recordings and was the musical director on "The Steve Allen Show" for more than 20 years. However, he's mysteriously still not an NEA Jazz Master, despite many musicians far younger than him—and with fewer bona fides—receiving the honor.
Plus, his infectious compositions, like "Kick Those Feet," "Bopstacle Course" and "Pretty Blue Eyes," aren't as widely known as they should be in the 21st century. That is, unless Gerry has something to say about it.
The Creative Whirlwind Of Gerry Gibbs
The apple doesn't fall far from the tree: Gerry Gibbs is as loquacious and driven as his father. Moreover, time is elastic on Planet Gibbs: What would typically be a half-hour conversation might stretch to more than three times that length.
"When he's explaining stuff, his mind is going 20,000 miles an hour," Patrice Rushen tells GRAMMY.com. "He might skip a lot of information that it would be of value for you to try to keep up with where he's going." For example: "'There's no bass player in this session.' [Pauses.] OK. 'Well, you'll be playing with [pianist] Larry Goldings.' [Pauses even longer.] OK? 'Larry's going to play the organ.' OK, got it. Now I'm piecing it together."
Put a man like this in pandemic house arrest, and he'll do something like write and record an entire song every day in an 18-day spree while playing all the instruments. And that's what Gerry did. He sent the resulting album, Emotional Pandemic, to 500 people on his email list. One of them happened to be Corea, who he'd been friendly with before but never worked with.
Corea took to Gerry immediately and emailed him, eager to learn about his creative process. "I was pretty freaked out," Gerry admits. "Friends of mine hadn't had time to listen to it, and here's Chick, who's so busy, and he listened to it numerous times." Gerry sent Corea his phone number; they talked for two hours and became fast friends.
"One time, at almost 3:00 in the morning, the phone rang, and it was Chick," Gerry says. "My wife sees the phone and I say, 'He must have butt-dialed me.' I answer the phone, and he says [loudly] 'Guess whooo!' I don't care. Chick could have woken me up every night, and it would be fine. It's Chick."
After Corea listened to Journey to Parts Unknown, another album Gerry made during lockdown—this one comprised of solo piano compositions—he inquired about adapting the tunes to include bass and drums.
"Then I realized, 'My label can't afford him,'" Gerry says. He offered to put his people in touch with Corea's people; Corea waved it away. "He was just like, 'No, no, no. Don't worry about that. I don't care about that. Let's just do it.'"
There was another potential wrinkle: Gerry's compositions are incredibly elaborate, so much so that Corea requested advance time with the charts. Plus, with COVID as a factor, lengthy rehearsals weren't possible. So rather than composing streamlined, improv-friendly music, Gerry decided to play his father's music instead.
"It's a tribute to my dad, but it's not a tribute because he's my dad," he says. "His music was some of the most important music for me growing up. It was my way to put my take on something that I grew up with that had a huge influence on me." While on a stroll through his neighborhood, he called everyone who ultimately would be involved with the record. They were in.
Gibbs told Corea he was going to change direction and play his father's music instead. Corea took to the idea enthusiastically, even asking to write an original song for the record: "Tango for Terry."
"All of us had so much faith in his judgment and his ability to work out the situations that were beyond everyone's expectations and experience." —Ron Carter
When it came time to track the music in various locations, none of the musicians were rusty after being housebound for months. "I was a little apprehensive about going into the studio, but I needed to play," Keezer says. "I was very happy that he called me for the project, especially with Christian on bass."
Gerry's curatorial and leaderly acumen struck all the musicians involved. "All of us had so much faith in his judgment and his ability to work out the situations that were beyond everyone's expectations and experience," Ron Carter tells GRAMMY.com. Barron adds, "Gerry is very creative in terms of coming up with different kinds of projects. It's not always the same thing, which I love about him."
For "Chick's Tune," a spin on Terry's "Hey Jim" with nine out of 10 of the musicians taking a solo, Gerry matched the tempo to a 1961 recording of his father and spliced his vibraphone solo to the music. "Gerry's very good at [working with] pre-recorded elements to play to, as far as the production side," Larry Goldings tells GRAMMY.com. "Gerry's very clever at editing."
Notably absent from his namesake song, however, was Corea.
The Final Musical Fires Of Chick Corea
By all accounts, Corea was strong and upbeat during the sessions. However, when it came time to tackle "Hey Jim," "Chick called me and said, 'I can't play on it because I'm not feeling good. I've got a pain in my ribs. Can we postpone this for three or four weeks?'" Gerry recalls. "I said, 'Of course, Chick.'"
"And then I spoke to his management," he says. "Chick was gone."
In a massive shock to the global jazz community, Corea passed away on February 9, 2021, from a rare form of cancer. He embodied energetic creativity for a musician in his autumn years; the internet was full of his recent videos and masterclasses. With about a month left, Corea got his affairs in order and wrote a statement to the world.
"I want to thank all of those along my journey who have helped keep the music fires burning bright," he said. "It is my hope that those who have an inkling to play, write, perform or otherwise, do so. If not for yourself then for the rest of us. It's not only that the world needs more artists, it's also just a lot of fun."
"My dad always said, 'People remember the very beginning, and they always remember the end. They don't always remember everything in the middle'... That's what I try to remember: What are the bookends? Are they really memorable?" —Gerry Gibbs
"I was so hurt and disappointed that, finally, I got to hook up with Chick and that we were going to get together and play after COVID," Gerry says. "It's a little eerie. When you're a little kid, you don't think, 'One day I'll play with Chick and when it happens, it'll be the last thing he'll ever do.'"
Gerry suggested they repurpose the track to be a tribute to their fallen friend. Terry agreed and proposed a new title—"Hey Chick." The music sounds as radiant, eager and playful as its namesake.
"My dad always said, 'People remember the very beginning, and they always remember the end. They don't always remember everything in the middle,'" Gerry says. "That always struck me as very important with a lot of music that I love. That's what I try to remember: What are the bookends? Are they really memorable?"
Terry and Gerry Gibbs. Photo courtesy of Gerry Gibbs.
A Father's Verdict
One critical question remains: What did Terry think of the final product?
"There's nothing greater than to hear someone play a song you wrote and interpret it their own way," he marvels. "You're talking about the heavyweights of heavyweights. Everyone is a bandleader."
"When he told me about all these guys he tried to get, I thought the COVID got to him or he was completely out of his bird!" he exclaims. "How did he get those guys, especially with this disease going around?"
Buster Williams has an answer: Despite the extraordinary circumstances, there was a "business as usual" vibe among the musicians. "We do record dates all the time, you know? You never know what's going to be the result of a record date," he tells GRAMMY.com. "You're sort of like, 'This is what I do.' But I was very pleased when I heard the complete record that they put together."
"When he told me about all these guys he tried to get, I thought the COVID got to him or he was completely out of his bird!" —Terry Gibbs
In a period of frustration over the perceived NEA Jazz Master snub, Songs From My Father proved to be a balm for the family. "[My father] said 'This is better than getting an award,'" Gerry says proudly. "He was really excited."
And while this ultimate act of paternal respect touches Terry deeply as he approaches a century on this planet, he's not going to let his son off that easily.
"I used to be a boxer," he clarifies. "I can still beat the heck out of him if I want to."
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Photo: JC Olivera/WireImage via Getty Images
Samara Joy Won Best New Artist At The 2023 GRAMMYs. What Could It Mean For The Wider Jazz Community?
The jazz-vocal phenom won big at the 2023 GRAMMYs, including a golden gramophone for Best New Artist. This could have a dramatic effect on an essential and primary yet too-often marginalized genre.
When young jazz luminary Samara Joy accepted a golden gramophone for Best New Artist at the 2023 GRAMMYs, the sequence of expressions that flitted across her visage seemed to cover the entire spectrum of feeling.
The 23-year-old vocalist born Samara Joy McLendon had already won a GRAMMY for Best Jazz Vocal Album at the Premiere Ceremony, for her acclaimed second album and Verve debut, Linger Awhile. This win during the CBS telecast was an entirely different beast.
The artist who just a few years ago had been a promising undergrad and audibly nervous on the phone now stood onstage at the Crypto.com arena before global megastars from Taylor Swift to Lizzo to Adele — not to mention 12.55 million people at home.
Speaking to GRAMMY.com in its wake, Joy likened the experience to living "in a parallel universe or a movie."
"I'm still in shock and disbelief because I truly didn't think that I would be in the position to receive such an honor," Joy said of the Best New Artist win, where she forged ahead of fellow nominees like Brazilian star Anitta, genre-blending singer/songwriter Omar Apollo, British indie oddballs Wet Leg, and her fellow rising jazzers DOMi & JD Beck.
"I am, however, grateful for the honor, because it reassures me of the fact that I want to continue pursuing music and growth as a musician," Joy continued. "This signifies the beginning of a musical journey that I'm nervous but excited to embark on."
While Joy's post-show comments focused on her continued development as an artist, the effect of her win quickly became conspicuous. Less than two weeks after the Feb. 5 ceremony, she appeared on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" to perform the recitative standard and Linger Awhile cut "Guess Who I Saw Today."
But it's worth considering what this General Field win means not only for Joy, but the jazz community writ large. Like other genres that appear deeper down the GRAMMY nominees list — from classical to reggae to spoken word — jazz can be treated as a little niche, partitioned off into a corner of the music landscape. Even the most heralded rising talents seldom rocket to celebrity status.
It's only once in a while that jazz completely and utterly perforates the mainstream — like in 2020, when Pixar's Soul was released, featuring consulting work from real-deal musicians from deep in the NYC scene, like Jon Batiste and Terri Lyne Carrington.
Some of these breakthroughs have happened at the GRAMMYs. In 2003, the charismatic and versatile Norah Jones swept the General Field, winning GRAMMYs for Best New Artist, Album Of The Year (for Come Away With Me) and Record Of The Year (for "Don't Know Why"), on top of wins for Best Pop Vocal Album and Best Pop Vocal Performance.
Five years later, Herbie Hancock — one of the most brilliant harmonic thinkers of the 20th century, and 21st — won Album Of The Year for River: The Joni Letters, his tribute to his old collaborator and fellow game-changing genius Joni Mitchell. In that category, the album beat out Kanye West's Graduation and Amy Winehouse's Back to Black.
In 2011, bassist, composer and vocalist Esperanza Spalding won Best New Artist and has been a steady presence at the GRAMMYs ever since, winning right up to the 2022 GRAMMYs (Best Jazz Vocal Album, for SONGWRIGHTS APOTHECARY LAB) and landing a nomination for Best Jazz Instrumental Album for her work with Wayne Shorter, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Leo Genovese on that year's Live at the Detroit Jazz Festival.
Additionally, at the 2022 GRAMMYs, Lady Gaga paid tribute to her collaborator, Tony Bennett, with a performance of "Love for Sale" and "Do I Love You" — both from their final duets album, which won Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album at that year's ceremony. (Previously, their album Cheek to Cheek won in the same category, at the 2015 GRAMMYs.)
On top of all that, other crossover artists with jazz connections, from Jacob Collier to Robert Glasper to Thundercat, have made big splashes at Music’s Biggest Night.
Despite operating under the "jazz" umbrella, all these artists are wildly divergent in almost every possible way. Joy is connected to a jazz-vocal tradition that snakes way back in history, back to when her heroes like Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Carmen McRae were dropping jaws.
"I'm overjoyed at Samara's success. But not surprised," Lisa Goich-Andreadis, the Director of Awards and Jazz Genre Manager at the Recording Academy, tells GRAMMY.com. "The first time I heard her voice, I couldn't believe that it was coming out of a 22-year-old. It has the richness and depth of the legends that came before her. She channels something out of another era. Her rise is well-deserved."
What makes Joy fresh is that it's her doing this music, channeling it through her vibrant abilities and irresistibly vivacious spirit. There are a lot of singers doing standards, but there's only one Joy.
"She f—ing deserves it, man," pianist Geoffrey Keezer, who took home a GRAMMY for Best Instrumental Composition at the same ceremony, tells GRAMMY.com. "She can sing her butt off, and I don't know her personally, but from everything I see, she seems like a really nice person, and really humble and down-to-earth. I think it's fantastic."
Keezer sees Joy's triumph at the 2023 GRAMMYs as a reminder, loud and clear, that jazz is no antiquated or peripheral artform. Rather, it is a vibrant and alive genre very much in the now.
"The whole umbrella genre is Black American Music, and jazz is the branch of it that has a swing beat," he explains. "So, it's just as current and relevant as anything else. There's all these different branches of the same tree. When the one that swings wins, it's just nice to have that recognized as: Yes, we're still here. This is still part of it, and it's important, and it's where it all came from."
To Goich-Andreadis, Joy's win is significant because it shows that she's being noticed by a wide audience far afield from the jazz community — including that of such esteem as the pre-GRAMMYs MusiCares Persons Of The Year event, which honored Motown titans Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson.
"She received a rousing standing ovation by the crowd, with honorees Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson leading the way," Goich-Andreadis remembers of her performance. "It's great to see a representative from this genre touching so many with her talent."
Keezer views Joy's ascent as part of a greater mass of acknowledgement, including that of Spalding, Hancock, and five-time GRAMMY winner Billy Childs — a rising tide that lifts all boats. "I think cumulatively, it opens doors," he says. "It gives the general public, I almost want to say, permission to like this music and think it's cool.
"Audiences are smart, man. People want to hear good musicianship," he continues. "You watch the Olympics to see Simone Biles, or tennis to see Serena Williams, or whatever. You want to see human excellence in real time, in front of your eyes. So, that's what we're seeing with Samara Joy. She's the real deal, and she's doing it right in front of you with no gimmickry and no Auto-Tune."
As to the wider impact of her big wins, Joy can't prognosticate. She only hopes to move the needle.
"I hope that this win means that jazz musicians will be paid a bit more attention and respect for their contributions to music as a whole," Joy says. "It really is a wonderful community that deserves some more shine than it's been given. It's a small step but a step nonetheless."
No matter what happens, perhaps the essence of this victory is simply that the flame is proudly preserved and bore by a worthy ambassador. "Samara is carrying on this very treasured and important musical tradition," Goich-Andreadis says. "Jazz is America's gift to the world."
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A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
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Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].
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Graphic: The Recording Academy
Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.
Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.
Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.
Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."
Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business.
As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.
Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"
In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.
Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt."
There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.
Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"
Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.
After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon.
"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.
Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"
Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.
In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."
Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall.
Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"
When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.
Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production.
Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.
Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"
Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."
Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar.
Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.