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

(L-R) Kassa Overall, Ambrose Akinmusire, Tyshawn Sorey, Linda Oh, Nicole Mitchell

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

Tyshawn Sorey, Nicole Mitchell, Linda May Han Oh, Ambrose Akinmusire and Kassa Overall are forging past what people thought were jazz’s boundaries

GRAMMYs/Apr 2, 2021 - 05:01 am

Since the word "jazz" was coined—most likely by white Americans at the beginning of the 20th century—artists have been resisting it. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie didn't appreciate the designation in the least, calling their offerings "modern music." The multi-reedist Yusef Lateef once spent a whole UCLA lecture taking the dictionary to task about it. If one called Max Roach a jazz musician, he was liable to come to blows. "You can have this word," John Coltrane declared in 1962, "along with many others that have been foisted upon us."

Almost 60 years later, that "foisting" continues unabated—and Tyshawn Sorey is beyond done with it.

Some of the multi-instrumentalist and composer's work resembles jazz. Sometimes it sounds more like classical. But the truth is that Sorey can freely move between those spheres—or ignore them entirely. "To deny something that is a part of my musical experiences or my life experiences is to be completely dishonest with anything that I put out artistically," the multi-instrumentalist and composer tells GRAMMY.com. "I don't feel like I have to be necessarily in one of those areas whenever I'm creating music."

Sorey isn't alone. Granted, his colleagues, like trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, flutist Nicole Mitchell, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and drummer-rapper Kassa Overall, don't uniformly reject the word "jazz." But when attempting to encompass their visions—avant-garde explorations, large-scale chamber works, acrobatic MC flow—the term falls short. These five artists have mastered the language so they can bend it to their will—or even cross-pollinate it with other languages entirely. 

In honor of Jazz Appreciation Month beginning on April 1, we can certainly acknowledge and love the traditionalists—those for whom "jazz" isn't a slight. At the same time, let’s honor those who explode that description, leading the charge of "modern music" in the 21st century. 

For those uninitiated in this world—or who mistakenly think the fusion era was the end of the line—here are five artists who are pushing the genre forward in 2021.

A Composer Beyond Descriptors: Tyshawn Sorey

For as good an entryway as any into Tyshawn Sorey's world, watch his 2019 improvisational set with gayageum player Do Yeon Kim at the New England Conservatory. Therein, Sorey plays every inch of the kit, whether manipulating snare wires with his hands or dragging a stick across the skin of a drum.

But even in this "out" format, Sorey isn't fomenting discord; he’s doing the opposite. "It's not like he does anything that's disordered," his longtime creative partner, pianist Vijay Iyertold GRAMMY.com recently. "Actually, everything he does is generating order."

Sorey agrees. "I think his response is accurate in that every decision I make is a compositional decision, and it's informed by the people I’m performing with," he says. "It just all comes down to really the amount of care that goes into creating the spontaneous work with whoever you're performing with." This could range in number, he adds, from a duo to 15 musicians.

As a drummer, Sorey is a multidimensional force. "Playing with Tyshawn is like being on stage with the ocean," flutist Claire Chase told The New York Times in 2021. "You're there with the ocean and it’s serene, and also dangerous and terrifying." But he's also played trombone and piano for decades, and he composes for the concert hall.

"I want to do something that celebrates the idea of genre mobility," Sorey says. "For me, there's no such thing as a jazz composer or even the classical composers. People just wrote the music they wrote and they have a right to engage and pursue it."

To that end, Sorey isn't just pushing jazz forward; he's pushing everything musical forward. Approach his body of work without preconceived attitudes and you'll get an ocean in return.

Three entryways:

The Inner Spectrum of Variables, 2016
Verisimilitude, 2017
Unfiltered, 2020

A Flutist Elevating Her Instrument: Nicole Mitchell

The flute occupies a slightly awkward space in jazz. Despite its importance to Cuban music and a number of phenomenal flutists in the genre—Herbie Mann, Hubert Laws, Rahsaan Roland Kirk—it still has a tertiary role compared to the saxophone and trumpet. 

Flute master Nicole Mitchell is fully aware of this precedent. As such, she approaches her playing from a unique angle, valuing personal feeling and group cooperation above all else.

"I tend to like the lower range of the instrument—the richer, darker, lower range," Mitchell tells GRAMMY.com. "I mean, I can play virtuosically and everything, but that's not as much the focus for me when I’m dealing with my ensembles. I’m trying to express what the whole range of human emotions are."

Those groups include the Black Earth Ensemble, which has braided Black forms from swing to avant-garde jazz for more than two decades, and the Artifacts Trio where Mitchell dabbles in electronics.

Twenty years since her debut album, Vision Quest, how does Mitchell view the long arc of her creative development? "I've explored spaces that have been difficult," she says. "I’ve learned to embrace what I call the edge of beauty and embrace the uncomfortable because I feel it’s in those spaces that we have a possibility for transformation."

But the throughline of her work, she says, is a celebration of contemporary African-American culture. As such, don't bottle Mitchell's output into "jazz," but hear it as a jolt of Blackness in all its mystery, complexity and joy.

Three entryways:

Afrika Rising, 2002
Black Unstoppable, 2007
Maroon Cloud, 2017

A Master Bassist & Musical Backbone: Linda May Han Oh

Linda May Han Oh arrived with 2008's Entry, a unique opening statement for a musician in her early twenties. "That was a bold step, first of all, for a bass player to make an album as a leader at that age," Iyer said. "There aren't that many records that are trumpet, bass and drums."

The format wasn't simply to be brazen. Rather, it was simply a documentation of where Oh's head was at the time—a photographic entry. "I just wanted to do something that didn't show every side of me," she explains to GRAMMY.com. "It was one document of what was there at the time."

From that record, which featured trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and drummer Obed Calvaire, Oh's purview expanded dramatically. Since then, she’s led a quartet (2013’s Sun Pictures) and a quintet (2012's Initial Here) and recorded with heavyweights from pianist Florian Weber to guitarist Pat Metheny.

But Oh is not just a small-group leader or a sidewoman. Aventurine, her luminescent chamber work from 2019, is her most monumental work to date as a full-fledged composer. What's the through-line between all of her work, as the backbone of so many ensembles?

"I would say to be in the moment," she says. "That's the number one priority. Whatever the moment calls for is the first thing." With a litany of projects on the horizon for 2021 and beyond—big bands, small bands, scoring a documentary—it’s clear that now is Oh's moment.

Three entryways:

Entry, 2008
Walk Against Wind, 2017
Aventurine, 2019

A Pathfinder Through The Modern Avant-Garde: Ambrose Akinmusire

The common line in jazz is that it went as "out" as it could possibly go at the end of John Coltrane's life. This is reductive. The avant-garde has never stopped being fertile soil, and Exhibit A of this reality is the Art Ensemble of Chicago—which was a young Ambrose Akinmusire’s first live jazz sighting.

"That was my impression of jazz," the GRAMMY-nominated trumpeter from Oakland, California tells GRAMMY.com about the boundary-exploding group, which blended free jazz with live performance art. "And a lot of people in the Bay Area playing with Don Cherry and Joseph Jarman and whatnot. So, I think my door was a little different than the average person who sits down and learns about jazz theory."

One of the most compelling trumpeters alive, Akinmusire plumbs fresh territory by considering the social context first. "My mentors showed me records," he recalls. "They weren't like, 'Hey man, check out 'Giant Steps' because of this cool progression that moves in major thirds. It was more like, 'He did this during a time of social unrest.' It was the meaning behind stuff."

Akinmusire joins his frequent collaborator, the pianist Jason Moran, as one of many ambitious conceptualists in his field. But his six albums as a leader—most of them on Blue Note—are thrilling even without backstory or explanation. That clean, pained, incisive tone will tell you everything you need to know.

Three entryways:

When The Heart Emerges Glistening, 2011
A Rift in Decorum: Live at the Village Vanguard, 2017
On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment, 2020

An Intrepid Jazz-Rap Collider: Kassa Overall

Kassa Overall is tired of interviews about how he can rap and play drums. The idea that they're two wildly divergent things is getting a little strange.

"I've talked about this for two albums now," the GRAMMY-nominated musician tells GRAMMY.com with a hint of exhaustion. "I ran that cycle in my head. I'm not so much trying to prove the point anymore that these things can go together or not go together. I just want to make the dopest s*."

Across two studio albums and two mixtapes, Overall has less blended jazz and hip-hop than crashed them like cars. The ensuing mess, he hopes, will show the two forms aren't at all dissimilar. 

"I think that's the secret: not blending them up like a smoothie but putting them together like a collage," he told Tidal Magazine in 2020 while discussing Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly. "They're from the same tree as far as where they come from, which is black music in America. You don’t have to over-mix them. It goes together already."

Overall is about to drop SHADES OF FLU 2, his latest collage of Blue Note samples and boom-bap beats, on Friday. He also wants to bring his craft to the stage—which, given that hip-hop and jazz are two of the most viscerally exciting genres to see live, might mean he has a live monster on his hands. 

Still, Overall is toying with the idea of abandoning what he calls "the jazz-hip-hop thing."

"There [are] so many other forms of music that are important, whether they be other African-based genres from other countries or European classical music or whatever,” Overall says. “Maybe we could get away from the idea of even genre, right?"

Three entryways:

Go Get Ice Cream And Listen To Jazz, 2019
I Think I’m Good, 2020
SHADES OF FLU, 2020

Vijay Iyer On His New Trio Album 'Uneasy,' American Identity & Teaching Black American Music In The 21st Century

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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