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No Accreditation? No Problem! 10 Potential Routes To Get Into Jazz As A Beginner
(L-R) Charles Mingus, Roy Haynes, Thelonious Monk & Charlie Parker

Photo: Bob Parent/Getty Images

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No Accreditation? No Problem! 10 Potential Routes To Get Into Jazz As A Beginner

Don't listen to the snobs and gatekeepers: Jazz is for you if you want it to be. Setting the pivotal figures and desert-island discs aside, here are ten ways of approaching the music that might help you finally get into it — once and for all.

GRAMMYs/Apr 13, 2022 - 04:26 pm

The search query "How do I get into jazz?" may elicit almost three billion results on Google, but here's what virtually none of the articles will tell you: the negative associations have a lot of truth to them.

Despite scores of wonderful participants, this community can look more like a bloodbath to an outsider. From finger-tenting critics and homicidal Discogs commenters to the hyper-competitive New York jazz scene, the impossibly complicated and diverse arena of jazz can seem impossible to perforate, much less enjoy. Throw in the politics, the pedagogy, and how it's all encased in academia, and other niche interests start to look mighty attractive — maybe building model airplanes.

But this is also true: you should forget all that and keep going. Because this is music, and the rest is noise. Approach it without reservations, and jazz might reveal itself as a fount of pleasure in your life. Any music blog or record-store clerk will tell you to check out the desert-island discs — Time Out, A Love Supreme, Kind of Blue — yet there's no playbook you're required to follow or mandate from the Jazz Police. If you want to kindle a relationship with jazz, the only boundaries involve what you enjoy and what you don't.

So, do you want to take the Wikipedia route and follow the history chronologically over the last century and change? You can certainly do that, although it might put you to sleep. Watch "Ken Burns Jazz" front to back and take notes? That's a classic docuseries, but it sure leaves a lot out. Take a music-appreciation course? It might be interesting, but you can also just open a streaming service and go nuts — especially if you don't feel like learning what a flatted fifth is.

The question remains: How do you get into jazz? Simple: whatever route makes you happiest.

At its core, this music is about the magic of extemporaneous human expression — which involves a spectrum of emotions, chief among them joy. So if your jazz journey feels more like a slog than a skip or a saunter, it's best to recalibrate and try again. Identify whatever makes you hate the process and dispose of it. Being lectured might be a mainstay of the jazz experience these days, but it's ultimately antithetical to the mathematical-yet-freewheeling soul of the music.

There are thousands of musical styles to enjoy in this life, but none of them will have the particular patina of Sonny Rollins at the Village Vanguard. Or Dave Brubeck at Carnegie Hall. Or Lee Morgan at Van Gelder Studio. A life without Louis Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams, Duke Ellington, Hank Mobley, John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, Herbie Hancock, Benny Golson, Geri Allen, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Ambrose Akinmusire, Joel Ross, and everyone else — past, present, and future — is missing something significant from the garden of earthly delights.

One can't comprehensively discuss it in a hundred books — much less a single article online — and there's no perfect way to digest the canon in its entirety. So you'll never reach the bottom because no one has. And that's one of the best parts.

With that in mind, here are ten possible routes to appreciating and understanding jazz — and for heaven's sake, enjoying it — as part of your day-to-day listening.

Ask Yourself What You Want From Jazz

First, it's worth examining why you've read this article thus far and what compels you to want to get into this world. Are you looking for sheer athleticism or pure feeling? The wildest, craziest technique, or the most tasteful and soothing? Are you looking for melodies? Anti-melodies? Brazen experimentation? Adherence to tradition?

One could list artists all day in response, but let's throw out a few basic names regarding the first two qualities.

Chances are, you'll want to enjoy athleticism and emotional communication in tandem. So who had both? For the sake of argument: Charlie Parker did. So did John Coltrane. And drummer Art Blakey. Where do you start with those artists? Type "best recordings" or "best albums" into Google, plus their names. Easy. You could spend months or years checking out their work.

What of artists who leaned more on feeling than technical display? Let's talk trumpeters. Chet Baker is a perfect example — while technically limited, he could strip melodies to their essences. While Baker mostly stayed in one lane for his entire career, Miles Davis famously reinvented himself several times. Right there, you've got hundreds of albums to check out. (Though you'll probably want to head for Chet and Kind of Blue first.)

You've got numerous online resources at your disposal for those other qualities — if you haven't used Bandcamp, it's an incredible tool for jazz discovery. So the point is: first, ask what you want from this music. Because if you go looking, the chances are that you'll receive it.

Follow The Cover Art

A spectacular record is like another world you get to live in for a while, and ideally, a record cover should be a window into that space. And when it comes to jazz, it's often a hipper, more sophisticated plane of expression. And classic jazz labels — especially Blue Note Records — deliver on the album-art front.

Almost all jazz labels offer great covers, but it's worth zeroing in on Blue Note — especially since they provide some of the building blocks of the music. Go through their database and find something that catches your eye. Chances are, the contents will be worth hearing at least once.

Hank Mobley, looking relaxed, with his tenor sax hanging behind his shoulder? That's Soul Station, one of the most effortlessly elegant post-bop records ever. The monumental typography of Larry Young's Unity will lead you to one of the most majestic organ-jazz albums ever recorded. And the otherworldly cover of Melissa Aldana's 12 Stars showcases one of today's most celebrated young tenor saxophonists.

Just use the visual cues, and follow your instincts. If something doesn't click, keep looking. You'll find something captivating before you know it.

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

Pick An Instrument And Go

Tenor, alto, soprano and baritone saxophone, trumpet, trombone, piano, bass, drums, vocals synthesizer, et cetera — which one do you gravitate to the most? Why not use that as a prompt for where to begin with jazz?

Then, think of the emotions you'd like that instrument to communicate. Want some fiery tenor saxophone? Coleman Hawkins is your man. Some soothing tenor? Check out Lester "Prez" Young.

And did you know both those players were at the helm of entire schools of thinking about the instrument? (Respectively, those are the "Hawk school" and the "Prez school.") Use the magic Google button and follow those lineages through the 20th century into today.

Follow Any Thread To Its Logical Limit

Jazz is a particularly fitting interest for completists and collectors — those with a nerdy streak. So once you digest the essential Herbie Hancock records, like Empyrean Isles, Head Hunters and Thrust, you can go down a rabbit hole of everything he played on, past and present. Even if something doesn't live up to the classics, it'll be fun to hear at least once.

Another fun mental game: find a goalpost and see if you can leap it in your research. Sure, you love Hank Mobley — but is there an even mellower saxophonist? Roy Brooks was a monster, but is there an even fierier drummer? Have two musicians more audibly hated each other on a joint recording than Chet Baker and Stan Getz on Stan Meets Chet?

Find what inspires, astonishes or tickles you, and keep ratcheting it up. Jazz will always deliver.

Take Critics With A Grain Of Salt

It's tempting to begin with just the masterpieces when it comes to jazz. But remember: the most vaunted selections were chosen by people just like you and us.

Case in point: if you disregard everything on Allmusic that got three stars or less, you've missed out on unrevolutionary yet totally worthwhile gems like Lou Donaldson's Hot Dog, Donald Byrd and Pepper Adams' Motor City Scene and Kenny Burrell's Soul Call.

This also applies to musicians themselves. Just because they're not venerated as once-in-a-lifetime innovators doesn't mean you shouldn't spend a lot of time with them.

"Jazz has its geniuses, but not everybody can be a total original. You need really good musicians who can do their thing in a way that is accessible to people and of a high quality," GRAMMY-winning jazz historian Dan Morgenstern said in the 2022 GRAMMYs program book, while discussing the saxophonist and composer Benny Golson.

"If everybody was a total original," he continued, "music would be very difficult to digest." As usual, it's wise to go with Morgenstern on this one. Seek out the slightly undersung players.

Begin At The Threshold Of The 1960s

For myriad reasons that can't be contained in this article, the period loosely spanning between 1958 and 1962 is a particularly sweet spot for recorded jazz.

From Sonny Clark's Cool Struttin' to Stanley Turrentine's Look Out! to Wynton Kelly's Kelly Blue, there are so many rewarding and listenable entries from this nexus point in the music — between producer extraordinaire Rudy Van Gelder's two studios, between the hard-bop and modal eras.

If you want a few particular years to dig around in, perhaps go with the end of the 1950s and beginning of the '60s — before you head backward and forward from there.

Find A Storied Club & Drop In

There are great jazz clubs all over the world — but if you're in or near New York City, you're particularly lucky. Any night of the week, there's bound to be something cutting-edge and captivating at the Village Vanguard, Smalls, Blue Note, Birdland and other venues. Drop in blind, and you probably won't be disappointed.

But if NYC isn't accessible to you, simply find the most talked-about spot near you. Because even if you don't care for what you find, identifying what you don't like is similarly important for forming your tastes.

Find Holes In Your Knowledge & Fill Them

Before we continue, did you notice that virtually all the performers in this article have been small-group jazz? Wait — what about big bands? What about crossover jazz performers? What about singers? 

Realizing something's missing from your knowledge bank isn't a bad thing — those voids are where understanding grows.

For instance: if you want to know more about '90s jazz, find an artist like trumpeter Brian Lynch, or pianist Brad Mehldau, then look up who they played with. Then who they played with, and so on.

If you don't know much about big band performers, find the essential Count Basie and Duke Ellington recordings. Then look up who played in their bands. Again, who else did they play with? Then find the other major big-band arrangers and players and ask the same questions.

Just stay curious and diligent, and you'll get where you need to be.

Read More: John Coltrane's Unearthed A Love Supreme: Live In Seattle Is A Revelation. Without This Little-Known Figure, It Wouldn't Exist.

Unthaw The Icons

This brings us to the handful of progenitors that tend to be talked about more than listened to — at least by average listeners. Why is this? It could be recording quality, or just tastes changing with time — but certain genius artists from the early- to mid-20th century can get a little frozen in time.

Do your best to hear them as human beings and not encyclopedia entries — and seek out the recordings that sound the most vital to you.

Louis Armstrong's version of "Hello Dolly!" might not be your bag, but Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy is a bluesy, burning gem that remains powerful today. You may not think you like "jazz with strings" albums, but Charlie Parker With Strings contains some of his most exquisite and lyrical soloing in an accessible setting. Lionel Hampton's explosive vibraphone playing on Benny Goodman's The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert shows how he was jazz's consummate rock 'n' roller.

Becoming an "icon" over the course of decades can be a double-edged sword for pioneering musicians — so do your best to approach the greats with fresh ears.

Above All, Enjoy Yourself

Is something not clicking for you, even though you "should" like it? Quit banging your head against the wall, wondering why your tastes aren't refined enough. (There are innumerable classics that this jazz writer never puts on around the house.)

Too many times, jazz becomes a chore for people when it should be a source of pleasure. The dip and sway of an exquisite saxophone solo, a ride cymbal skipping like a stone, and a commanding vocalist at full tilt engage the heart and body even more than the head.

And if you keep trying and jazz doesn't speak to you — great! There are so many other styles of music to cherish in this life, and nobody can make you feel less-than for not feeling it.

But at the risk of pulling the "you just haven't heard the right jazz!" card, you're encouraged to try all the doors before you give up for good. There might be some you didn't even know existed. And as soon as one swings open, you're welcome inside for life.

Virtuosos, Voyagers & Visionaries: 5 Artists Pushing Jazz Into The Future

Recordings By Janet Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Odetta & More Inducted Into The National Recording Registry

Janet Jackson

Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images

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Recordings By Janet Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Odetta & More Inducted Into The National Recording Registry

Selections by Albert King, Labelle, Connie Smith, Nas, Jackson Browne, Pat Metheny, Kermit the Frog and others have also been marked for federal preservation

GRAMMYs/Mar 25, 2021 - 02:37 am

The Librarian of Congress Carla Haden has named 25 new inductees into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. They include Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation 1814,” Louis Armstrong’s “When the Saints Go Marching In,” Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” Nas’ “Illmatic,” Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration,” Kermit the Frog’s “The Rainbow Connection” and more.

“The National Recording Registry will preserve our history through these vibrant recordings of music and voices that have reflected our humanity and shaped our culture from the past 143 years,” Hayden said in a statement. “We received about 900 public nominations this year for recordings to add to the registry, and we welcome the public’s input as the Library of Congress and its partners preserve the diverse sounds of history and culture.”

The National Recording Preservation Board is an advisory board consisting of professional organizations and experts who aim to preserve important recorded sounds. The Recording Academy is involved on a voting level. The 25 new entries bring the number of musical titles on the registry to 575; the entire sound collection includes nearly 3 million titles. Check out the full list of new inductees below:

National Recording Registry Selections for 2020

  1. Edison’s “St. Louis tinfoil” recording (1878)

  2. “Nikolina” — Hjalmar Peterson (1917) (single)

  3. “Smyrneikos Balos” — Marika Papagika (1928) (single)

  4. “When the Saints Go Marching In” — Louis Armstrong & his Orchestra (1938) (single)

  5. Christmas Eve Broadcast--Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill (December 24, 1941)

  6. “The Guiding Light” — Nov. 22, 1945

  7. “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues” — Odetta (1957) (album)

  8. “Lord, Keep Me Day by Day” — Albertina Walker and the Caravans (1959) (single)  

  9. Roger Maris hits his 61st homerun (October 1, 1961)

  10. “Aida” — Leontyne Price, et.al. (1962) (album)

  11. “Once a Day” — Connie Smith (1964) (single)

  12. “Born Under a Bad Sign” — Albert King (1967) (album)

  13. “Free to Be…You & Me” — Marlo Thomas and Friends (1972) (album)

  14. “The Harder They Come” — Jimmy Cliff (1972) (album)

  15. “Lady Marmalade” — Labelle (1974) (single)

  16. “Late for the Sky” — Jackson Browne (1974) (album)

  17. “Bright Size Life” — Pat Metheny (1976) (album)

  18. “The Rainbow Connection” — Kermit the Frog (1979) (single)

  19. “Celebration” — Kool & the Gang (1980) (single)

  20. “Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs” — Jessye Norman (1983) (album)

  21. “Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814” — Janet Jackson (1989) (album)

  22. “Partners” — Flaco Jiménez (1992) (album)

  23. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”/”What A Wonderful World” — Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (1993) (single)

  24. “Illmatic” — Nas (1994) (album)

  25. “This American Life: The Giant Pool of Money” (May 9, 2008)

Learn To Make Beats With Library Of Congress' New Digital DJ Tool

Apple Music Exclusive: Watch Classic GRAMMY Performances

Whitney Houston, 29th GRAMMY Awards

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Apple Music Exclusive: Watch Classic GRAMMY Performances

The Recording Academy teams with Apple Music to offer historical GRAMMY performances by Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye, Whitney Houston, Shania Twain, Kendrick Lamar, and more

GRAMMYs/Nov 24, 2017 - 07:00 pm

To celebrate the GRAMMY Awards' 60th anniversary and the show's return to New York for the first time in 15 years, the Recording Academy and Apple Music are bringing fans a special video collection of exclusive GRAMMY performances and playlists that represent the illustrious history of Music's Biggest Night.

Available exclusively via Apple Music in a dedicated GRAMMYs section, the celebratory collection features 60-plus memorable performances specifically curated across six genres: pop, rap, country, rock, R&B, and jazz. 

The artist performances featured in the collection include Marvin Gaye, "Sexual Healing" (25th GRAMMY Awards, 1983); Whitney Houston, "Greatest Love Of All" (29th GRAMMY Awards, 1987); Run DMC, "Tougher Than Leather" (30th GRAMMY Awards, 1988); Miles Davis, "Hannibal" (32nd GRAMMY Awards, 1990); Shania Twain, "Man, I Feel Like A Woman" (41st GRAMMY Awards, 1999); Dixie Chicks, "Landslide" (45th GRAMMY Awards, 2003); Bruno Mars and Sting, "Locked Out Of Heaven" and "Walking On The Moon" (55th GRAMMY Awards, 2013); and Kendrick Lamar, "The Blacker The Berry" (58th GRAMMY Awards, 2016).

The 60th GRAMMY Awards will take place at New York City's Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018. The telecast will be broadcast live on CBS at 7:30–11 p.m. ET/4:30–8 p.m. PT. 

Carrie Underwood, John Legend To Host "GRAMMYs Greatest Stories"

Sounds Of Change: Chris Stapleton Performs An Aching Version Of Louis Armstrong's "What A Wonderful World"

Chris Stapleton

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Sounds Of Change: Chris Stapleton Performs An Aching Version Of Louis Armstrong's "What A Wonderful World"

Shrouded in amber fog and accompanying himself on sonorous electric guitar, Chris Stapleton performed Louis Armstrong’s paean to a better Earth, "What A Wonderful World"

GRAMMYs/Mar 31, 2021 - 09:23 pm

Featuring stars from Patti LaBelle to Andra Day to Gladys Knight, "A GRAMMY Salute To The Sounds Of Change" was a decades-spanning celebration of the iconic songs that inspired social change and left an everlasting imprint on music and history.

Here's a clip from the 2021 special in which country powerhouse Chris Stapleton performed Louis Armstrong’s paean to a better Earth, "What A Wonderful World." 

Stapleton accompanied himself on electric guitar, shrouded in amber fog, showing how the old chestnut easily transmutes into a variety of American idioms. 

Watch the performance above and read a full recap of the event here.

"A GRAMMY Salute To The Sounds Of Change" is available on-demand on Paramount+.

Here's What Went Down At "A GRAMMY Salute To The Sounds Of Change" 

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