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

Photo: Eduardo Pavez Goye

interview

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

After the floor collapsed beneath Melissa Aldana due to the pandemic and the end of a years-long relationship, she reemerged with her resplendent Blue Note debut, '12 Stars'

GRAMMYs/Mar 4, 2022 - 03:41 pm

Some of the most inspired jazz happens in front of an audience, but that's a double-edged sword when there's a global pandemic. When live music was plunged into uncertainty and musicians lost their incomes, their creative drive sometimes went with them. But not Melissa Aldana's. 

Rather than needing human energy feedback to stoke her creative fires, Aldana's imagination is self-propelled — a perpetual motion machine.

"The pandemic didn't change the way I'd be practicing," the Chile-born tenor saxophonist tells GRAMMY.com. "Even though I acknowledge the audience and there's an energy interchange when there's people there, to me, music isn't really about something external more than something internal, that's personal." 

The lockdown coincided with the dissolution of a long-term relationship, leaving a despairing Aldana to embark on a period of self-analysis. Those upheavals switched on her creative machine, resulting in music that opens a window into her psyche.

Her new album, 12 Stars — which arrived March 4 — marks her debut on arguably the king of jazz labels: Blue Note Records. Therein, highlights like "Falling," "The Bluest Eye" and "Los Ojos de Chile" thread her experiences through her mastery of her musical language. And her accompanists — guitarist Lage Lund, pianist Sullivan Fortner, bassist Pablo Menares, and drummer Kush Abadey — help them pulse with vitality and purpose.

Despite being the consummate practicer, Aldana's approach is never overly slick — her fingerprints are perceptible on every note. "After the personal process I went through, I feel more connected to myself and my own imperfections — and I've discovered that it's the same process with music," Aldana said in a press release. "Embracing everything I hear, everything I play — even mistakes — is more meaningful than perfection."

"She's extraordinary," Blue Note Records president Don Was tells GRAMMY.com. "Man, just her tone — that's what really got to me. The sound she gets out of the horn. She's a beautiful singer, and that's what really spoke to me." Whether you're a jazz neophyte or an expert — or Aldana's story just piques your curiosity — 12 Stars has the potential to speak to you, too.

GRAMMY.com sat down with Aldana to discuss the origin of 12 Stars, the sometimes-painful process of self-realization and how it felt to join the storied lineage of Blue Note Records.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Tell me about your relationship with Blue Note Records over the years. I'm sure the label was foundational to you as a young musician. 

Yeah, I grew up listening to all of Sonny Rollins' albums from Blue Note and did so many transcriptions, you know? From a lot of people I really looked up to, like Joe Henderson and Sam Rivers

What were your favorite Blue Note records growing up?

 Sonny Rollins, A Night at the Village Vanguard. Sam Rivers' trio albums.

 Was Rollins your guy, as far as finding your way around the horn? 

I think it was mostly Charlie Parker for so many years, and when I changed to tenor, Sonny was one of my biggest influences. It's like Sonny, Don Byas, Benny Golson, Mark [Turner] and Paul Gonsalves are my main guys. 

I saw your take on Charlie Parker's "Just Friends" solo on Instagram the other day. 

Yeah, I learned that when I was, like, 10 years old. I started listening to things from back then, finding different ways of thinking about them.

What was your vision for the compositions on 12 Stars? What did you want to impart to listeners on an emotional level?

12 Stars comes from a crown [worn by] the Empress on the tarot card — it's the third Major Arcana. When I had a strong personal crisis among everything that was happening globally, I started getting into the history of tarot symbols and studying numerology, trying to make sense of my own process.

As I was going through different information and getting to know myself, I decided to write a tune about part of the process. I wasn't even thinking that it would become my next album; I just wanted to find a way to analyze what I was feeling.

So, I started writing the tune "12 Stars" at the very beginning of the pandemic, and I finished it in December, after we decided all the music we were going to have for the album. It talks about the completion of a cycle — trying to find meaning through tarot.

The interesting thing about it is that tarot, astrology, numerology and religions all talk about the same thing. The journey of the soul and its purpose on this earth. So, that's the main inspiration for the album. 

It sounds like 12 Stars was the product of a period of gnarly introspection for you. 

Yeah, absolutely. I started thinking about how it would become an album, and also started taking tarot lessons and writing a song about each of the Arcanas.

I was lucky enough to still be able to play with Pablo [Menares] and Kush [Abadey] every week. So, I would get the right tunes — we would start it one way and change it a lot. And then, Lage [Lund] also rearranged it. 

I think it was a process of the band, you know? Me, Lage and Pablo. We basically developed all the music together to cheer up during the pandemic.

What spurred that period of introspection? You've mentioned that "Falling" was about a time where it felt like things were coming undone in your life. 

Just personal changes. That tune was also inspired by the 15th Major Arcana, which is a tower. And the tower [card] talks about the moment in your life where you realize where the things you thought were stable, are not. I had been living with this idea of something and not really acknowledging "Who am I?" 

So, the pandemic hit. I lost all my work. I broke a long relationship that I had for many years. And then, I was totally alone. As much as I like to practice and study and read, there was a moment where my body was like, "No. You just need to feel this and process this." So, I wrote the tune called "Falling" to describe that process in my life.

How did you get through this devastating period for musicians — with the social isolation and loss of income that it entailed?

One good thing is that I've always been the most organized person when it comes to money, and very thoughtful about the idea that "I want to live in New York and grow older, but I don't want to rent for the rest of my life. When I retire, I want to feel comfortable so I can enjoy what I do."

Since I was very young, I'd saved money. So, when the pandemic hit, of course, I lost all my income, but the economic part wasn't really the biggest issue. And then, for the inspiration part, I can always be inspired, you know? I can be thoughtful about my process and try to be very present in the way I feel about music. 

Inspiration is something I can cultivate every day by my actions or the way I wake up, what I listen to, you know? I can always spend these hours. I can memorize solos; that's not the issue. 

Even though I acknowledge the audience and there's an energy interchange when there's people there, to me, music isn't really about something external more than something internal, that's personal. The pandemic didn't change the way I'd be practicing.

Whereas some musicians would experience creative death from not being able to play live, your energy comes from an internal, self-propelling engine.

Yeah. Also, I'm very strong. I wasn't going to have gigs, but I was [going to] take this time to grow. But as important as it is for me to practice, there wasn't a lot of work on my practice because I was feeling really bad. I was depressed, not having human contact. Just getting separated all of a sudden.

Nobody knew what would happen, so there was all this anxiety on top of the personal thing. I couldn't practice for 12 hours, so I had to learn how to talk and see myself, and accept the way I felt and dig into my patterns: "What am I doing to make me fall into the same thing? What is the lesson there?" You can practice as much as you can, but if you don't accept the way you see your music, there's never going to be growth.

In my relationship with tarot, religion, myth — the myth of the phoenix and this idea that you have to die in order to be reborn — to me, there's something really important when it comes to music. I'm practicing all the notes that I have, as much language as I can, so I can grow from the mistakes.

So, I can see the parallel between those two things over the past year. [Corrects self] Two years.

What books did you absorb during this process of self-realization?

I started reading a book written by [Alejandro] Jodorowsky, who is one of the most well-known people that has done a lot of therapeutic tarot sessions. So, I started reading about that, and then I started to get into Joseph Campbell — the myth of the hero — and Carl Jung. 

I also started watching a lot of documentaries and astrology videos. A bunch of different sources on things that make me passionate about. But yeah, Joseph Campbell is definitely one of my biggest inspirations.

Campbell's archetype of the protagonist surging forward through adversities reminds me of a lot of jazz musicians.

Absolutely. You can apply it to so many things. And then, when you go into the history of myth, then you can go into the history of tarot, which is Carl Jung and his whole way of thinking about the archetypes.

Tell me about the period after this transformative season of life, when you connected with Don Was and began your Blue Note journey.

I'm extremely lucky to have one of the best managers ever. She always supports my vision and what I want to do. So, we started talking about the idea of signing with Blue Note. I wanted to find a record label, and I just had the feeling it would be the right thing to do.

My manager helped me through the process of talking to Don Was, and I also have the history because of [all-women supergroup and Blue Note signees] Artemis. So, I feel like everything was leading toward that. This was around August of 2020.

Was there a sense of pressure to live up to the Blue Note legacy?

No, this feels very natural. It makes me really happy. I have felt the pressure of always having a story and something that is interesting. But rather than just mentioning that this is inspired by the Major Arcana, it's important to me as a human being that is 33 to share my personal experience. Which I think is something that all of us deal with around this age — changes and things like that.

So, I just wanted to do something that really resonated with me, and that's the album.

How did you choose who would accompany you on 12 Stars?

Pablo's been my bass player for my whole life. I really believe in the idea of having a band. I remember that when I moved to New York, I always wondered what would be success for me — what would be my vision.

And my vision has always been being able to take my guys on a month, two-month tour and be able to develop a sound as a band, which is really rare these days — to have that kind of opportunity.

To me, creative relationships and strong bonds with the people I play with are really important. So, first of all, all of these guys are my very, very close friends. And during the pandemic, we were all going through a lot of personal things. Pablo and Kush were alone. So, we spent a lot of time just hanging, cooking and playing for hours — drinking and I-don't-know-what.

It's never been a doubt for me that I would record with those guys. I always wanted to find the band, and I think I found it with Lage, Pablo and Kush. And then, I love Sullivan's playing. He's one of my close friends too. I wanted to have his vision of what the music would be. 

I felt that all of us were strongly rooted in the tradition, which, to me, is really important. I want that element in my music, because that's where we're coming from. But I like people who have the freedom to be vulnerable and bring who they are into the music. I was really lucky to find the perfect group of people to be part of the process.

Tell me about "Emilia." Who's that tune named after?

I started having a lot of crazy dreams during the pandemic, in the beginning. But I had one that repeated many times. It was this dream where I was a mom and I had a daughter, and I was trying to make her fall asleep. Every night, I would sing a melody. And I remembered the name, Emilia. That was super clear. 

One night, I woke up with the melody in my head and I wrote it down. It's a tune I wrote for the daughter that I don't have.

And "Los Ojos de Chile" seems like a pretty deliberate reference to your roots.

Chile has something called the Estallido Social. Since 2019, there's been a lot of crazy political changes happening. Very positive, at the end of the day. It was one of the first times I felt I was part of something bigger. I felt Chilean, and I was so proud to see people stand up for what they believed — their rights.

Back then, we wanted to do a concert where we would raise money for a foundation for people that lost their sight during the protests. While they were protesting, the cops were shooting tear gas. 

When we played the concert, I wanted to write something that related to the feeling in that moment. It was a big moment where I understood what identity was for me. It was something I always questioned: "Where am I from?" Which is totally related to the whole process that started during the pandemic.

I love the cover art by Cécile McLorin Salvant. Can you talk about that?

Cécile is one of my closest, closest friends. We talk a lot, and she knows my story really well. We've shared so many moments that, when I did the album, I didn't want a photo of me on the cover. I wanted to have something that represented all the things that happened to me in a visual way. 

We had a lot of exchanges of ideas — listening to Carl Jung about the myth and having a lot of talks about that. I just knew that the way she knows me and what this album was about meant she would be the best person to describe it. So, she did the cover.

It even has avocados on the cover, if you notice. The avocados are a big part of who I am as a Chilean person. I thought she did a really good presentation of what I was feeling at the moment and what I wanted to express on the album.

If you were to summarize your Chilean identity in a few words, how would you do so?

Chile happens to be the place where I grew up and the culture I was around, so of course, it shaped the person I am. But my personal experiences have to do with my family, relationships and story.

Before, I thought that being Chilean meant I had to write in Yahgan, and write music related to that. But it's not that. My Chilean identity is my own experience living there, and it's unique to me.

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

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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

interview

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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GRAMMY Hall Of Fame Class Of 2015

The Hall adds 27 new recordings, including selections by ABBA, Bob Dylan, Kraftwerk, Lou Reed, Bonnie Raitt, Otis Redding, and Sex Pistols

GRAMMYs/Dec 18, 2014 - 10:11 am

Continuing the tradition of preserving and celebrating timeless recordings, The Recording Academy has announced the newest additions to its legendary GRAMMY Hall Of Fame. With 27 new titles, the list currently totals 987 and is on display at the GRAMMY Museum in downtown Los Angeles.

List of 2015 GRAMMY Hall Of Fame recordings

"With recordings dating as early as 1909 through the late '80s, this year's GRAMMY Hall Of Fame entries not only represent a diverse collection of influential and historically significant recordings but also reflect the changing climate of music through the decades," said Neil Portnow, President/CEO of The Recording Academy. "These memorable, inspiring and iconic recordings are proudly added to our growing catalog — knowing that they have become a part of our musical, social and cultural history."

Representing a great variety of tracks and albums, the 2015 GRAMMY Hall Of Fame inductees range from Autobahn by Kraftwerk to Lou Reed's controversial hit "Walk On The Wild Side." Also added to the highly regarded list are the 4 Seasons' "Big Girls Don't Cry," ABBA's "Dancing Queen," Neil Young's 1972 album Harvest, Chic's disco classic "Le Freak," the Sex Pistols' album Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols, and Alice Cooper's "School's Out." Other inductees include recordings by Harry Belafonte, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Otis Redding, and Hank Williams, among others.

Spotify Playlist: 2015 GRAMMY Hall Of Fame

This latest round of inducted recordings continues to highlight diversity and recording excellence, and acknowledges both singles and album recordings of all genres at least 25 years old that exhibit qualitative or historical significance. Recordings are reviewed annually by a special member committee comprised of eminent and knowledgeable professionals from all branches of the recording arts, with final approval by The Recording Academy's National Board of Trustees. 

Additionally, The Recording Academy has continued its partnership with FX Group to publish a 120-page collector's edition book. GRAMMY Hall Of Fame 2015 Collector's Edition features in-depth insight into the 27 titles inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame class of 2015. The full-color book also highlights the work of the GRAMMY Foundation's GRAMMY Camp program and preservation and archiving initiatives, and offers a colorful look at other music halls of fame across the United States dedicated to preserving and honoring music's legacy. The book will be available online at the official GRAMMY store, at retailers such as Barnes & Noble, Target and Walmart, as well as on newsstands nationwide and at the GRAMMY Museum in downtown Los Angeles.

For more information on the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, visit GRAMMY.org.

The 57th Annual GRAMMY Awards will take place on Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015, at Staples Center in Los Angeles and will be broadcast live in high-definition TV and 5.1 surround sound on CBS from 8–11:30 p.m. (ET/PT). For updates and breaking news, visit The Recording Academy's social networks on Twitter and Facebook.