Considering the 2021 Grammy Nominations: In Jazz, the Usual Suspects, with a Spoiler or Two

Nov 24, 2020

Grammy nominations are always an imprecise barometer, contingent on too many factors to provide a clear view on any scene. Still, the 2021 jazz field, announced this afternoon, ratifies an industry consensus that has implications well beyond the award podium.

There have always been perennial favorites at the Grammys, of course, in jazz as in other genres. Any short list would have to include pianist Chick Corea, who has racked up 23 wins over the years, and whose nods for Best Jazz Instrumental Album and Best Improvised Jazz Solo bring his career nomination total to 67.

The Corea album under consideration is Trilogy 2, which features two other Grammy favorites: bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade. As a rhythm team, they appear twice more on the list, for their heralded reunion with saxophonist Joshua Redman and pianist Brad Mehldau. (RoundAgain, credited to all four artists, is up for Best Jazz Instrumental Album; Redman’s tenor essay on “Moe Honk” is up in the  Best Solo category too.)

Another returning hero in Best Jazz Instrumental Album is drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, a three-time Grammy winner who, with the collective Social Science, has an undeniably strong contender in Waiting Game. A somewhat less expected Best Album nominee this year is pianist Gerald Clayton, for Happening: Live at the Village Vanguard — though it may be worth nothing that Clayton’s entry in the Best Solo category, on the Bud Powell tune “Celia,” finds him at his most Corea-esque.

Clayton is a deserving artist who, in light of the above, probably counts as a long shot this year. But he isn’t as much of an outlier in the Best Instrumental Jazz Album category as his longtime colleague Ambrose Akinmusire, a trumpeter and composer who just received his first-ever nomination, for the excellent quartet album on the tender spot of every calloused moment. There has long been a slight disconnect between Grammy approval and critical acclaim; if Akinmusire were to prevail here, it would suggest a rare cosmic alignment in that respect.

The situation looks a little different in Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album, where the most heralded entry comes from five-time Grammy winner Maria Schneider. Yet it’s hardly a given that her Data Lords will prevail over the other hardy albums in her category: Dialogues on Race, by bassist Gregg August; Monk’estra Plays John Beasley, by keyboardist John Beasley; The Intangible Between, by Orrin Evans And The Captain Black Big Band; and Songs You Like a Lot, by John Hollenbeck with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band.

Things are more wide open in Best Jazz Vocal Album, where the smart odds probably favor Kurt Elling for Secrets Are the Best Stories, his collaborative effort with pianist Danilo Pérez. Then again, there’s considerable momentum behind Thana Alexa’s Ona, and Somi makes a strong impression with Holy Room: Live at Alte Oper. Rounding out the category are Carmen Lundy and Kenny Washington, who have previously been nominated but never won. And if you’re wondering about a conspicuous omission, Blue Note decided to submit All Rise, the latest by Gregory Porter, for Best R&B Album — a calculation that has paid off handsomely, more than once, for the Robert Glasper Experiment.

Speaking of Glasper and genre migration, you’ll find him in the running for Best R&B Song (“Better Than I Imagined,” which he wrote with Meshell Ndegeocello and H.E.R.) and Best Progressive R&B Album (F*** Yo Feelings). 

Among the other covert jazz operatives in other fields are saxophonist Remy Le Boeuf, who has nominations for Best Instrumental Composition as well as Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Cappella; Kamasi Washington, whose Becoming scored a nod for Best Score Soundtrack For Visual Media; and The Baylor Project, whose “Sit On Down” is up for Best Traditional R&B Performance. (Depending on how you classify Thundercat, Flying Lotus and Jacob Collier — and I’d argue we should stop trying — they fit the bill too.)

Credit Josh Cheuse / Verve

Compounding the potential for confusion, the category titled Best Contemporary Instrumental Album is chockful of relevant entries, like Chronology of a Dream: Live at the Village Vanguard, by pianist Jon Batiste; Axiom, by trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah; and Americana, by harmonica virtuoso Grégoire Maret, pianist Romain Collin and guitarist Bill Frisell. 

As for snubs — artists who should be a part of this conversation, but somehow aren’t —there are too many examples to name, which is par for the course. Perhaps the most glaring absences are a pair of British saxophonists, Nubya Garcia and Shabaka Hutchings, and a South African pianist, Nduduzo Makhathini.

But again, the Grammys adhere to their own proprietary logic, and tend to welcome newcomers at an inconsistent pace. For jazz artists at least, it functions a bit like a gated community; everything’s smoother once you’re in.

To that end, maybe the big shocker is that guitarist and composer Pat Metheny didn’t receive an album nomination for his ambitious orchestral effort From This Place. Metheny, who has 20 Grammys to his name, is celebrated for work that blurs genre lines, and gives the lie to any presumptive rift between a critical darling and an audience favorite.

Metheny does have one nomination this year: “From This Place,” his album’s title cut, received a nod for Best Arrangement, Instruments and Vocals. (The vocalist on the track is Meshell Ndegeocello.) If he wins, Metheny will share the honor with Alan Broadbent, and bring his own tally up to 21. He faces some strong competition, including Beasley, Jacob Collier and the members of Säje. But if history has taught us anything at the Grammys, it would be foolish to underestimate his chances.

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Here are the complete Grammy nomination results in the Jazz field:

Best Improvised Jazz Solo

• GUINEVERE
Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah, soloist
Track from: Axiom

• PACHAMAMA
Regina Carter, soloist
Track from: Ona, by Thana Alexa

• TOMORROW IS THE QUESTION
Julian Lage, soloist

• CELIA
Gerald Clayton, soloist
Track from: Happening: Live at the Village Vanguard

• ALL BLUES
Chick Corea, soloist
Track from: Trilogy 2 (Chick Corea, Christian McBride & Brian Blade)

• MOE HONK
Joshua Redman, soloist
Track from: RoundAgain, by Redman Mehldau McBride Blade)

Best Jazz Vocal Album

• ONA
Thana Alexa

• SECRETS ARE THE BEST STORIES
Kurt Elling Featuring Danilo Pérez

• MODERN ANCESTORS
Carmen Lundy

• HOLY ROOM: LIVE AT ALTE OPER
Somi With Frankfurt Radio Big Band

• WHAT'S THE HURRY
Kenny Washington

Best Jazz Instrumental Album

• ON THE TENDER SPOT OF EVERY CALLOUSED MOMENT
Ambrose Akinmusire

• WAITING GAME
Terri Lyne Carrington And Social Science

• HAPPENING: LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD
Gerald Clayton

• TRILOGY 2
Chick Corea, Christian McBride & Brian Blade

• ROUNDAGAIN
Redman Mehldau McBride Blade

Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album
 

• DIALOGUES ON RACE
Gregg August

• MONK'ESTRA PLAYS JOHN BEASLEY
John Beasley

• THE INTANGIBLE BETWEEN
Orrin Evans And The Captain Black Big Band

• SONGS YOU LIKE A LOT
John Hollenbeck With Theo Bleckmann, Kate McGarry, Gary Versace And The Frankfurt Radio Big Band

• DATA LORDS
Maria Schneider Orchestra

Best Latin Jazz Album
 

• TRADICIONES
Afro-Peruvian Jazz Orchestra

• FOUR QUESTIONS
Arturo O'Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra

• CITY OF DREAMS
Chico Pinheiro

• VIENTO Y TIEMPO - LIVE AT BLUE NOTE TOKYO
Gonzalo Rubalcaba & Aymée Nuviola

• TRANE'S DELIGHT
Poncho Sanchez

A previous version of this article erroneously stated that Somi had been nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Album in the past. This is her first nomination.