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New Age Pioneer Laraaji On The Healing Potential Of 'Sun Piano'

Laraaji

Photo by Daniel Oduntan

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New Age Pioneer Laraaji On The Healing Potential Of 'Sun Piano'

The Afro-Transcendentalist speaks with GRAMMY.com about mystic coincidences, imagining other existences through improvisation and more

GRAMMYs/Jul 20, 2020 - 11:12 pm

It’s clear that Edward Gordon's laugh is a healing tonic even before learning that he's a practitioner of laughter therapy. The lush, resonant "ha's" are as strong and warm as a heartbeat coming through loud and clear over the phone from his Harlem, New York, home. Not only a spiritual guide in therapeutic practices, Gordon has built a long, legendary career in music. The first major splash in public awareness came via Brian Eno, who worked with Gordon for the third record in his ambient series in 1980. However, Gordon has produced countless meditative albums under the name Laraaji since the late ‘70s. Gordon has focused in recent years on the power of the zither to bring listeners to another plane.

In an appropriately reality-bending conception, his latest LP, Sun Piano, takes a step forward and a look back at the same time. The record is the first in a trilogy focused on piano as primary instrument, and the resonant chords and walking bass lines perfectly fit a new transcendent phase of Laraaji. However, the album also captures the mystic spirituality of the piano's place in Gordon's upbringing in the Baptist church.

Though Sun Piano was recorded well before the world was hit by pandemic, before the prominence of marches for racial justice, Laraaji was already focused on helping listeners reach a place of peace. Playful piano stairsteps open album highlight "This Too Shall Pass," the right hand pinging out lustrous counterpoints to the left’s cheery bass bounce. In a world where we are all bombarded by information and message, Sun Piano offers a respite for the imagination, a moment of peaceful self-exploration and beauty.

The pioneering Afro-Transcendentalist Laraaji spoke with GRAMMY.com about mystic coincidences, imagining other existences through improvisation and the healing potential of Sun Piano.

Do you see yourself as Laraaji, or is that a name that more encompasses what you represent to other people in your music?

It's both. It's a name that for me addresses my appreciation and respect for the power and the presence of the sun. And it serves me in my attitude about myself as a serving through sound and through my lifestyle, constant service, constant radiation. Although I sign my checks as Edward Gordon. [Laughs.]

When you release an album, do you have a plan or a hope for what that specific release can bring for people? Do albums differ greatly in that regard for you?

I am peacefully excited with the sense that this album will address the psychological and emotional comfort side for people. Also it will address any desire to feel the piano in a new way. This piano is a very grand classical concert piano being handled in a way that grand pianos aren't normally handled. [Laughs.] A little rock, jazz, flowing, ambient, celestial, very free flow, free-spirited approach to the improvisation with the piano. And I feel that that spirit could support people around the planet at this time, those who choose to listen to it, to keep the spirit free and light and flowing.

Do you see the mission of your music differently when the world surrounding you feels in relative chaos?

The recording session took place December 2018, and at that point I had no conscious inkling that it would be released during a time of a pandemic or a racial intensity. But I feel spiritually guided by unseen forces that this album should be released at this time. My life has been guided in ways that might seem mystical and my activity has been synchronized with so many things that go on in my environment.

So you're saying that while it is a coincidence, you aren't so shocked by the timing?

No, I'm not. I kind of laugh at it. I'm constantly reminded how the spirit or the higher intelligence works. There's a unity I feel in the way that I'm guided to be at the right place at the right time doing the right thing for the right reasons. [Laughs.]

That definitely resonates. Do you feel that mystic connection when you perform live as well?

Yes, I do. My practice is to get into as fine an alignment with a universal sense of mission or a universal sense of purpose as possible so that my music is not just for this location, not just for this audience, but it's an embrace of the entire unified field of the cosmos. Years of meditation have allowed my imagination to go to that place, to have my own inner imagery, a universal space time. So when I am performing, those who come up to me after the show will mention something about how a headache had disappeared or an ailment in the body had subsided, or the music had lifted them out of an emotional trying time in their life, and I'll get the feeling, "Ah, so this is one of the reasons I was here tonight."

I was fascinated by the fact that you and Donny Hathaway were classmates at Howard University. His music touches something deeper in one's soul as well, but in a different methodology.

Very much so. I grew up in the Baptist church and around a lot of gospel music. Donny Hathaway I believe had a strong background similar to that and his music reflected a spiritual influence. And I feel it in the music that I'm doing now. It’s a continuation of that Baptist Christian do-good, look out for your neighbor, bring good vibes world.

That must've been an incredible experience for you to think back on all the people that you have met along the way. How important are those kinds of connections for you?

It’s like one big party. You meet the family members one at a time along the way. It's very reassuring, very uplifting. If I hadn't met those individuals, I would imagine my zest for doing what I'm doing might be on a different level. Jessye Norman was another person I was connected to. She was an opera singer and was also at Howard at the same time—but I think she's moved beyond this life form.

It’s so important to see connections and collaborations not only as uplifting, but also as a point of reassuring you that you're on the right path, which is really tricky for an artist. Sometimes you don't really know if you're on the right path until you're faced with somebody telling you to come along.

Yes! During periods when I was doing early experimentation, before even the zither came into view, I remember writing lots of music and sending it off to be copyrighted. That was a period where I didn't get much reassurance that the music I was doing then was benefiting people emotionally. So when I opened up to more of a service attitude in my music, I allowed my music to support people in moving into deeper silence, or music that would help to harmonize deep subconscious stress patterns, or music that would help the imagination of a creative writer or a painter or a dancer to open up on new levels of their ability to create. This later period I'm around dancers, choreographers, composers, recording artists and musicians who have all given me reassurance that now I'm doing something that means a lot to more than just myself.

What drew you to the piano for this particular album in this moment?

I've always liked the piano. Whenever I've found one, I'd play it. Even when I was on tour the last 15 or 20 years, if there was a piano backstage, I would play it during downtime. I didn't want to become dependent on it because as I moved around, I was able with the zither to go into places and do concerts where there was no piano.

But a year or so ago Matthew Jones at Warp Records suggested I should do a solo piano album. He heard a recording of a piano performance I did in San Francisco. I was there to do a zither concert, but there was a piano on stage. And I said, "Why not leave it there? And I'll somehow incorporate my concert." Matthew suggested that we do a piano album and call it Sun Piano in sequence with the Sun Zither and the Sun Gong music that I've been doing.

The record immediately calls these clear visions into the listener's mind. Do you have images in your own head while you improvise?

Images come to mind, dancers especially. They serve as my sheet music. I do a lot of dancing. The dance feeling is always in my body and it translates to the way I interact with the piano a lot. I also have images of people in deep trance, people going inward and being still. My lifestyle puts me in touch with meditation circles and energy communities, so I often have images of people using my music that way, people that I know would enjoy moving to this music or tapping their foot, as well as the people who would use it to go to sleep by, or as a backdrop for creative writing.

A favorite image of mine is the image of civilizations, either known or unknown, doing dance celebrations. Another is angels moving at a very light vibratory altitude. Another is imagery of body functions, like blood moving through veins, or the breath being coaxed to slow down.

How would you describe an energy community for those who aren't familiar?

Like a drum circle or people getting together to chant or to heal. People come together to do things like Reiki or massage, to share energy in a way that uplifts people. It's not always about sharing words or talking, but sometimes touching, laying on of hands, massage, or chanting. People come together with musical instruments and just hang out for the joy and the healing.

Even those that don't think of music as a healing form will feel that from this album. How did you utilize sequencing on this album to make that trajectory clear?

It was very easy: I gave that assignment to Matthew Jones. [Laughs.] He worked out sequences and he would run them by me. He gave it some very strong time and energy to work out the sequence, and I'm quite impressed and pleased with the way the sequences unfold.

Can you tell me a bit about how this album fits with the rest of your planned piano trilogy?

Sun Piano is the more vibrant mixing of what happened in the recordings sessions. The next one is Moon Piano, which is more of a feminine, soft, quiet energy. And then the third is called Through Luminous Eyes, which is piano with zither in the same framework.

I was lucky enough to see you play at the Bohemian National Cemetery here in Chicago two years ago. It always seems that location impacts the way that you make music.

Yes. The environment and the people who are assembled contribute to the alchemy or to the chemical act of the way I perform, or I let music happen. The architecture, no doubt whether it's indoors or outdoors, amphitheater or nightclub stage, also plays a big role. I tend to honor the space so much that you can say I play the space too. I don't just play the musical instrument.

You've worked with a wide range of artists, from Pharaoh Sanders to Blues Control. How do you know whether a collaborator will be a good fit for your expression?

With Blues Control, we went into the studio without me hearing their music. I went through a period in the ‘70s of jam sessioning in coffee houses and late-night recording studios, just on the fly, being with musicians and creating on the spot. Learning how to free associate and how to find an enjoyable function within a musical collaboration has been a gift of mine, to be able to sit in with anything and find a meaning. However, it might not always be interesting to the ears of someone else.

Is there a particular time or space in which you feel people should absorb this album?

I find myself pleasantly looking forward to this music either late at night or waking up in the morning. I haven't had the opportunity to, but I would imagine listening in a car on a nice scenic car ride.

Going into these next few weeks before the album's release, you're not able to tour. What are you going to use that time for?

I've regarded this as a blessing of unlimited relaxation. I've been doing lots of interviews and lots of home collaborations, sending music out to other artists and producers. I get to walk in Central Park a lot still during this time, but as for performing and touring, nothing's on the table until probably September or even 2021. We'll just see, because venues around the world have not really opened up to include large audiences. I also did a laughter workshop on-camera for Nike. A camera crew came here the other day and did a short introduction to my laughter meditation work.

If I were doing a laughter meditation workshop, either alone or with my partner, we would open up with call and response chanting. People would be sitting in a circle and they would be invited to sing along. Then we would talk about the health benefits of laughter and get into what I call the play zone—to get people into a childlike, playful nature. Then we would explore six or seven different ways of using laughter to work on our inner self. There's a laughter for the head to get endorphins and hormones to flow. There's a laughter for the throat, laughter for the heart, for the abdominal organs, for the immune system, for the lungs. People get to interact with one another during the laughter exercises, which causes a lot of hilarity. Then the participants are invited to lie down on a yoga mat or pillows and use these exercises to create a laughter release as a practice for how they might want to wake up in the morning. I advise people to try this for seven days to explore their laughter for 15 minutes in the morning.

After the laughter release, the participants are allowed to just lie still. The lights come down low and they're in a state close to the corpse pose in yoga, Shavasana, a deep meditative place. And then live music, whether it's a gong or Tibetan bowls or zither or voice, moves around the space to help support and compliment a deep state of relaxation and meditation. Then we would close with all the participants coming back into the body with a very happy interactive sing-along song called "The Happy Foot Song." People get into the body from the feet all the way up to the top of their head. We dance every part of the body. And then we'd close with optional sharing of experiences. We close with a hum or an om sound, or if it's in a very close-knit community, we close with some hugging so people get to let the softer energy of their laughter experience transfer into warm hugs.

Have you ever connected a laugh workshop and your music in concert?

Once in Japan I included the laughter work in a concert. It was tricky for Japan. They were so reserved. But in other parts of the tour, the laughter was a segment unto itself. Usually it's in the afternoon and the music is at night. Something that I'm now doing more of is called a sound bath, where the entire time people are coming in and lying down with masks on to be immersed in a sound bath with gongs and musical instruments. To get people into a deep, relaxed place, we'll introduce laughter as a very brief component of the experience upfront.

Beginnings And Endings With Rufus Wainwright

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GRAMMY SoundChecks With Gavin DeGraw

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

On Aug. 28 Nashville Chapter GRAMMY U members took part in GRAMMY SoundChecks with Gavin DeGraw. Approximately 30 students gathered at music venue City Hall and watched DeGraw play through some of the singles from earlier in his career along with "Cheated On Me" from his latest self-titled album.

In between songs, DeGraw conducted a question-and-answer session and inquired about the talents and goals of the students in attendance. He gave inside tips to the musicians present on how to make it in the industry and made sure that every question was answered before moving onto the next song.

 

Juan Gabriel named 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person Of The Year

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Juan Gabriel named 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person Of The Year

Annual star-studded gala slated for Nov. 4 in Las Vegas during 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Week celebration

GRAMMYs/May 15, 2017 - 01:36 pm

 GRAMMY.com

 Internationally renowned singer/songwriter/performer Juan Gabriel will be celebrated as the 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year, it was announced today by The Latin Recording Academy. Juan Gabriel, chosen for his professional accomplishments as well as his commitment to philanthropic efforts, will be recognized at a star-studded concert and black tie dinner on Nov. 4 at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nev. 

The "Celebration with Juan Gabriel" gala will be one of the most prestigious events held during Latin GRAMMY week, a celebration that culminates with the 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Awards ceremony. The milestone telecast will be held at Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas on Nov. 5 and will be broadcast live on the Univision Television Network at 8 p.m. Eastern/7 p.m. Central. 

"As we celebrate this momentous decade of the Latin GRAMMYs, The Latin Recording Academy and its Board of Trustees take great pride in recognizing Juan Gabriel as an extraordinary entertainer who never has forgotten his roots, while at the same time having a global impact," said Latin Recording Academy President Gabriel Abaroa. "His influence on the music and culture of our era has been tremendous, and we welcome this opportunity to pay a fitting tribute to a voice that strongly resonates within our community.

Over the course of his 30-year career, Juan Gabriel has sold more than 100 million albums and has performed to sold-out audiences throughout the world. He has produced more than 100 albums for more than 50 artists including Paul Anka, Lola Beltran, Rocío Dúrcal, and Lucha Villa among many others. Additionally, Juan Gabriel has written more than 1,500 songs, which have been covered by such artists as Marc Anthony, Raúl Di Blasio, Ana Gabriel, Angelica María, Lucia Mendez, Estela Nuñez, and Son Del Son. In 1986, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley declared Oct. 5 "The Day of Juan Gabriel." The '90s saw his induction into Billboard's Latin Music Hall of Fame and he joined La Opinion's Tributo Nacional Lifetime Achievement Award recipients list. 

At the age of 13, Juan Gabriel was already writing his own songs and in 1971 recorded his first hit, "No Tengo Dinero," which landed him a recording contract with RCA. Over the next 14 years, he established himself as Mexico's leading singer/songwriter, composing in diverse styles such as rancheras, ballads, pop, disco, and mariachi, which resulted in an incredible list of hits ("Hasta Que Te Conocí," "Siempre En Mi Mente," "Querida," "Inocente Pobre Amigo," "Abrázame Muy Fuerte," "Amor Eterno," "El Noa Noa," and "Insensible") not only for himself  but for many leading Latin artists. In 1990, Juan Gabriel became the only non-classical singer/songwriter to perform at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and the album release of that concert, Juan Gabriel En Vivo Desde El Palacio De Bellas Artes, broke sales records and established his iconic status. 

After a hiatus from recording, Juan Gabriel released such albums as Gracias Por Esperar, Juntos Otra Vez, Abrázame Muy Fuerte, Los Gabriel…Para Ti, Juan Gabriel Con La Banda…El Recodo, and El Mexico Que Se Nos Fue, which were all certified gold and/or platinum by the RIAA. In 1996, to commemorate his 25th anniversary in the music industry, BMG released a retrospective set of CDs entitled 25 Aniversario, Solos, Duetos, y Versiones Especiales, comprised appropriately of 25 discs.   

In addition to his numerous accolades and career successes, Juan Gabriel has been a compassionate and generous philanthropist. He has donated all proceeds from approximately 10 performances a year to his favorite children's foster homes, and proceeds from fan photo-ops go to support Mexican orphans. In 1987, he founded Semjase, an orphanage for approximately 120 children, which also serves as a music school with music, recreation and video game rooms. Today, he continues to personally fund the school he opened more than 22 years ago.   

Juan Gabriel will have the distinction of becoming the 10th Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year honoree, and joins a list of artists such as Gloria Estefan, Gilberto Gil, Juan Luis Guerra, Julio Iglesias, Ricky Martin, and Carlos Santana among others who have been recognized. 

For information on purchasing tickets or tables to The Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year tribute to Juan Gabriel, please contact The Latin Recording Academy ticketing office at 310.314.8281 or ticketing@grammy.com.

Set List Bonus: Bumbershoot 2013
Grizzled Mighty perform at Bumbershoot on Sept. 1

Photo: The Recording Academy

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Set List Bonus: Bumbershoot 2013

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 04:22 am

Welcome to The Set List. Here you'll find the latest concert recaps for many of your favorite, or maybe not so favorite, artists. Our bloggers will do their best to provide you with every detail of the show, from which songs were on the set list to what the artist was wearing to which out-of-control fan made a scene. Hey, it'll be like you were there. And if you like what you read, we'll even let you know where you can catch the artist on tour. Feel free to drop us a comment and let us know your concert experience. Oh, and rock on.

By Alexa Zaske
Seattle

This past Labor Day weekend meant one thing for many folks in Seattle: Bumbershoot, a three-decade-old music and arts event that consumed the area surrounding the Space Needle from Aug. 31–Sept. 2. Amid attendees wandering around dressed as zombies and participating in festival-planned flash mobs to Michael Jackson's "Thriller," this year the focus was on music from the Pacific Northwest region — from the soulful sounds of Allen Stone and legendary female rockers Heart, to the highly-awaited return of Death Cab For Cutie performing their 2003 hit album Transatlanticism in its entirety.

The festival started off on day one with performances by synth-pop group the Flavr Blue, hip-hop artist Grynch, rapper Nacho Picasso, psychedelic pop group Beat Connection, lively rapper/writer George Watsky, hip-hop group the Physics, and (my personal favorite), punk/dance band !!! (Chk Chk Chk). Also performing on day one was Seattle folk singer/songwriter Kris Orlowski, who was accompanied by the Passenger String Quartet. As always, Orlowski's songs were catchy and endearing yet brilliant and honest.

Day one came to a scorching finale with a full set from GRAMMY-nominated rock group Heart. Kicking off with their Top 20 hit "Barracuda," the set spanned three decades of songs, including "Heartless," "Magic Man" and "What About Love?" It became a gathering of Seattle rock greats when, during Heart's final song, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready joined for 1976's "Crazy On You."

Day two got off to an early start with performances from eccentric Seattle group Kithkin and Seattle ladies Mary Lambert and Shelby Earl, who were accompanied by the band Le Wrens. My highlight of the day was the Grizzled Mighty — a duo with a bigger sound than most family sized bands. Drummer Whitney Petty, whose stage presence and skills make for an exciting performance, was balanced out by the easy listening of guitarist and lead singer Ryan Granger.

Then the long-awaited moment finally fell upon Seattle when, after wrapping a long-awaited tour with the Postal Service, singer/songwriter Ben Gibbard returned to Seattle to represent another great success of the Pacific Northwest — Death Cab For Cutie. The band celebrated the 10-year anniversary of their album Transatlanticism by performing it from front to back. While a majority of attendees opted to watch the set from an air-conditioned arena, some of us recognized the uniqueness of this experience and enjoyed the entire set lying in the grass where the entire performance was streamed. 

Monday was the day for soul and folk. Local blues/R&B group Hot Bodies In Motion have been making their way through the Seattle scene with songs such as "Old Habits," "That Darkness" and "The Pulse." Their set was lively and enticing to people who have seen them multiple times or never at all.

My other highlights of the festival included the Maldives, who delivered a fun performance with the perfect amount of satirical humor and folk. They represent the increasing number of Pacific Northwest bands who consist of many members playing different sounds while still managing to stay cohesive and simple. I embraced the return of folk/pop duo Ivan & Alyosha with open arms and later closed my festival experience with local favorite Stone.

For music fans in Seattle and beyond, the annual Bumbershoot festival is a must-attend.

(Alexa Zaske is the Chapter Assistant for The Recording Academy Pacific Northwest Chapter. She's a music enthusiast and obsessed with the local Seattle scene.)

Neil Portnow Addresses Diversity & Inclusion, Looks Ahead During Speech At 2019 GRAMMYs

Neil Portnow and Jimmy Jam

Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images

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Neil Portnow Addresses Diversity & Inclusion, Looks Ahead During Speech At 2019 GRAMMYs

Jimmy Jam helps celebrate the outgoing President/CEO of the Recording Academy on the 61st GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Feb 11, 2019 - 10:58 am

As Neil Portnow's tenure as Recording Academy President/CEO draws to its end, five-time GRAMMY winner Jimmy Jam paid tribute to his friend and walked us through a brief overview of some of the Academy's major recent achievements, including the invaluable work of MusiCares, the GRAMMY Museum, Advocacy and more.

Portnow delivered a brief speech, acknowledging the need to continue to focus on issues of diversity and inclusion in the music industry. He also seized the golden opportunity to say the words he's always wanted to say on the GRAMMY stage, saying, "I'd like to thank the Academy," showing his gratitude and respect for the staff, elected leaders and music community he's worked with during his career at the Recording Academy. "We can be so proud of what we’ve all accomplished together," Portnow added.

"As I finish out my term leading this great organization, my heart and soul are filled with gratitude, pride, for the opportunity and unequal experience," he continued. "Please know that my commitment to all the good that we do will carry on as we turn the page on the next chapter of the storied history of this phenomenal institution."

Full Winners List: 61st GRAMMY Awards