The Grammy Foundation announced their official nominees for the 50th annual Grammy Awards this past Thursday, December 6th, 2007. Although I’ve officially disregarded the importance of Grammy Awards for myself, I always keep track of the nominees and winners. Regardless of their importance to me, a lot of people value the Grammys and they do influence the music market. The type of power exerted by the Grammy Awards needs to be watched carefully, and if possible, kept honest.
The Grammy organizers made a conscious attempt to diversify their award nominees this year. The major categories include a variety of “surprise” picks including Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters as an Album of the Year choice. The represents a positive swing for the Grammy Awards, although it’s a change that I don’t completely trust. For years, corporate earnings have dictated the Awards, and the public has sensed the lack of authenticity. Although I hope that my cynicism is wrong, I suspect that this change of heart has resulted from a drop in ratings for the Award show. Regardless of intentions, the nominees are higher quality this year – a positive fact. Still, I have mixed emotions about the selections for this year’s Latin Jazz Grammy Award.
In one respect, some very deserving albums were recognized in this category. Paquito D’Rivera’s Funk Tango was the one nomination in the Latin Grammy Awards Latin Jazz category that I felt was a respectable choice. The album has some great playing, thoughtful compositions, and very authentic use of Latin rhythms. Big Band Urban Folktales from Bobby Sanabria easily ranks as one of the year’s best albums. The rich band textures, highly original writing, and Nuyorican flavor made this a must-own album in 2007. Sammy Figueroa and his Latin Explosion released The Magician during 2007, and it too exists as an excellent album. When narrowing the 2007 releases down to 5 choices, I’m not sure that I would have included this one, but I’m happy to see another solid Latin Jazz album included in the nominations. These choices reflect a pursuit for higher quality, and a desire to recognize significant artists in this genre.
I have questions about the other two choices, although I do have trouble being too negative about them – I don’t own either album, so I’ve only listened to sample clips. Steve Khan’s Borrowed Time sounds more like a modern jazz album, with an Afro-Cuban flavor. He has some highly skilled players in both realms – drummer Jack DeJohnette, bassist John Patitucci, trumpet player Randy Brecker from the jazz world and timbalero Ralph Irizarry, Ruben Rodriguez on baby bass, Marc Quiñones on percussion. All these players can swing between styles and make meaningful statements in both genres. It just seems that the material on the album doesn’t commit to one side. Hector Martignon’s Refugee suffers from the same problem; a Latin album with an overabundant helping of funk and swing. While all these approaches can result in good music, there were so many high quality Latin Jazz albums firmly rooted in the tradition this year; it seems like there could have been better choices. I hope that I’m wrong – again, I haven’t heard these albums in their entirety – but it seems like the largest body of voters didn’t have a broad knowledge of the 2007 Latin Jazz releases.
The choices in the Latin Jazz category leave me wondering if a major “music” award ceremony is relevant in today’s world. We have access to such a wide assortment of musical styles, how can we be so general and expect to really find excellence? When given the power to choose the best albums of the year, how can one person be expected to be knowledgeable about every style of music? Wouldn’t most people pick a familiar or popular name when faced with a long list of checkboxes outside their comfort zone? Too many choices exist; too many for any one person to competently answer.
We need to focus the awards into specific areas of expertise and perhaps splinter the overall “music” awards into several smaller niche awards. If separate award processes existed for individual genres, then experts in the field could vote for just those awards. Musicians and industry people directly involved with the genre – the people that can truly recognize excellence within that field – would choose each award. If “music” awards are maintained, then maybe voting could be limited to your primary musical field. If a musician records rock, then they only vote for rock awards. This may take much more logistical coordination, but in the end, we would gain more authentic and meaningful awards.
Awards are important, they signal excellence in any given field. They give recognition to artists that took the extra effort to push their field into new directions. They serve as recommendations to listeners with limited experience, which only want to spend their money on an outstanding album. They create a history of high quality artistic works; many people research good music by looking at the long list of yearly Grammy winners. They help casual consumer sort through the endless options for musical purchases, helping them focus in upon their interests. They boost musicians’ careers into more profitable bracket, eventually allowing them to continue their career. There are many reasons for the continuing presence of awards.
The lack of high profile and meaningful awards negates the influence that music awards hold in our lives. While the Grammy Awards contain a diverse array of categories, only a small number of those categories actually recognize top artists. The nomination and voting process needs to change in order to add an aura of authenticity to the Awards themselves. The Grammy Awards reach a massive audience, and that dictates a responsibility to find only the best music. Until these changes happen, the Grammy Awards continue to be a lie recognizing great music in a few categories and random music in all the other categories.