Each year the Recording Academy gets some things incredibly right and other things horribly wrong. Our initial reaction to this year’s nominees is mixed as well, but more positive than in recent years. We’ve even discovered a few new favorites. Concentrating on the instrumental nominees, we offer a brief summary below.
For the full list of nominees, click here.
Category 10 – Best Dance/Electronic Album
3-D The Catalogue (Kraftwerk)
Mura Masa (Mura Masa)
A Moment Apart (Odesza)
What Now (Sylvan Esso)
An interesting quintet here, not bad. Somebody’s paying attention. Of course we’re never going to fault Kraftwerk as a selection. Sylvan Esso’s album is vocal, but it’s a good one (albeit not as consistent as the 2014 debut). We’re not fans of Mura Masa (too much unnecessary obscenity). The Bonobo and Odesza albums are both excellent, blending vocal and instrumental tracks in a smooth and effective fashion (the sole exception being Odesza’s “Across the Room,” which contains the following clunker: “We’ve been goin’ for about two hours and I don’t even know your name.” Tracks from the latter sets have also been nominated in the category of Best Dance Recording. For a moment, we imagine an alternate universe in which the lyric-free tracks were nominated: enjoy these picks below.
Category 11 – Best Contemporary Instrumental Album
What If (The Jerry Douglas Band)
Spirit (Alex Han)
Mount Royal (Julian Lage & Chris Eldridge)
Prototype (Jeff Lorber Fusion)
Bad Hombre (Antonio Sanchez)
We reviewed hundreds of albums during the eligibility period, and somehow missed ALL of these. Is there something wrong with us? No. There’s something wrong with the Grammies. Check out The Jerry Douglas Band’s cover of “Hey Joe” if you want to be convinced. The Academy allows in every album that contains at least 51% instrumental music. There is no convincing argument for including rubbish like this at the expense of all the instrumental musicians out there; in fact, it’s an insult. Alex Han’s album is the sort of jazz funk that the old Academy voters still like; Mount Royal is pleasant bluegrass, but not particularly memorable; Jeff Lorber Fusion channels Steely Dan (and long-time Grammy viewers know all about the duo’s belated win, long after Aja; apparently these voters haven’t died yet). Bad Hombre is tolerable, but what a poor cover. The biggest problem with nominees such as these is that they give instrumental music a bad name. Calling these “the best” makes people think they’re not missing anything, and every one of our readers knows that the opposite is true.
Category 30 – Best New Age Album
Reflection (Brian Eno)
SongVersation: Medicine (India.Arie)
Dancing On Water (Peter Kater)
Sacred Journey Of Ku-Kai, Volume 5 (Kitaro)
Spiral Revelation (Steve Roach)
We don’t like this category at all, so we’ll keep it short. Poor Brian Eno. Can’t we get rid of the new age tag, or at the very least, include an Ambient category? If we did, we’d have plenty of better suggestions than these.
Category 60 – Best Score Soundtrack For Visual Media
(Award to Composer(s) for an original score created specifically for, or as a companion to, a current legitimate motion picture, television show or series, video games or other visual media.)
Arrival (Jóhann Jóhannsson, composer)
Dunkirk (Hans Zimmer, composer)
Game Of Thrones: Season 7 (Ramin Djawadi, composer)
Hidden Figures (Benjamin Wallfisch, Pharrell Williams & Hans Zimmer, composers)
La La Land (Justin Hurwitz, composer)
This is where the Academy gets it really, really wrong. The category is flummoxing, as it mixes TV scores and video games in with the movies. Add the disorientation of THREE nominees being 2016 releases ~ especially egregious given the presence of award winner La La Land. We did like the score for Arrival, and had it listed in our own Best Film Scores back on December 13, 2016. The score for La La Land stands on its own as well. But to “include” video games and then to exclude them is a travesty. Consider Ben Lukas Boysen and Sebastian Plano’s “Everything” as a prime snub. Ditto for Jeff Russo’s “Legion” score. Then throw in every movie released in 2017 that isn’t Dunkirk ~ and even there, the score for the seven-minute trailer (screened before Wonder Woman in IMAX theaters only) is better. Tomatoes all around.
Category 62 – Best Instrumental Composition
Alkaline (Pascal Le Boeuf, composer; Le Boeuf Brothers & JACK Quartet)
Choros #3 (Vince Mendoza, composer; Vince Mendoza & WDR Big Band Cologne)
Home Free (For Peter Joe) (Nate Smith, composer; Nate Smith)
Three Revolutions (Arturo O’Farrill, composer; Arturo O’Farrill & Chucho Valdés)
Warped Cowboy (Chuck Owen, composer; Chuck Owen And The Jazz Surge)
The Academy tends to lean toward jazz recordings in this category, which is not our strong suit; but there are some interesting picks here. Our main contention is the narrow range of options. If all of the picks are going to be jazz, call it jazz.
“Alkaline” is complex and purely modern, demonstrating great interplay between the musicians who engage in a carefully choreographed give and take. The plucked strings lend the piece a distinctive flavor, the percussion a nearby echo. A sweetly melodic finale seals the deal: this would be our pick.
It’s hard for us to judge this one, but we do like the scat singing at the end, and the audience seems to love the piece as well.
This one is a sweet surprise, a real outlier in the competition ~ we’re glad that it was chosen. The track begins in one place ~ languid, string-laden modern composition ~ and ends in another, with piano and drums taking it to a jazzy home, offering it a drink, and toasting its success.
“Three Revolutions” is a combination of jazz and salsa, with a spicy kick. The cover hearkens back to performances of old, yet while the piece hearkens back to its ancestors (especially at 4:38), its energy transcends the times.
“Warped Cowboy” is not the best name for a long jazz track, but that’s what we’ve got here. This isn’t our cup of tea at all. So we’re going back to play “Alkaline” again.
Category 82 ~ Best Contemporary Classical Composition
Danielpour: Songs Of Solitude (Richard Danielpour, composer; Thomas Hampson, Giancarlo Guerrero & Nashville Symphony)
Higdon: Viola Concerto (Jennifer Higdon, composer; Roberto Díaz, Giancarlo Guerrero & Nashville Symphony)
Mansurian: Requiem (Tigran Mansurian, composer; Alexander Liebreich, Florian Helgath, RIAS Kammerchor & Münchener Kammerorchester)
Schoenberg, Adam: Picture Studies (Adam Schoenberg, composer; Michael Stern & Kansas City Symphony)
Zhou Tian: Concerto For Orchestra (Zhou Tian, composer; Louis Langrée & Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra)
The voters in this category deserve congratulations, because ALL of the nominees are worthy. Not everything was released in 2017, and a couple of the nominees are vocal ~ the baritone opera of Danielpour and the choirs of Mansurian. For us, this leaves the following:
Zhou Tian’s Concerto for Orchestra is one of three concertos found on the disc, and has been rightfully hand-picked for this category. “Glow” is gorgeous, vibrant and loud, with an especially strong finale. It may be one of the shorter works here, but it’s already overshadowed many of its longer brethren.
Adam Schoenberg’s 26-minute Picture Studies is inspired by “four paintings, three photographs and one sculpture.” The tenth movement, “Pigeons in Flight”, is one of the more active, and it’s also our favorite, as playful and ebullient as one might expect from the title.
Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto starts off oh-so-slowly, and preserves its feeling of quietude even after it grows agitated. A tender piece of great power, the concerto is a showcase not only for the composer, but for all who are able to handle its curves.
The Grammy Awards will be presented on Sunday, January 28. Our own awards will be handed out in a much smaller ceremony beginning next week.