The 61st Annual Grammy Awards are this Sunday, Feb. 10.
And ever since the nominees were announced a couple of months ago, there has been talk of upsets and other surprises — especially in the Album of the Year category, which has expanded from five to eight artists, making predictions that much more of a sucker's game.
The picture is hardly clearer in the jazz field, where veteran awardees share space with serious newcomers. So let's not frame this edition of Take Five as a set of predictions. Instead, consider this a series of endorsements, one per category.
Best Improvised Jazz Solo
Few categories at the Grammys are as minutely specific as Best Improvised Jazz Solo. This year's slate of heralded soloists includes violinist Regina Carter, for her guest turn on a track by Karrin Allyson; alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, for an improvised flight on his recent chamber-jazz album; and trumpeter John Daversa, for a solo from his latest big band album. Rounding out the list are pianists Fred Hersch and Brad Mehldau, each for a track with his trio.
Hersch's selection is a spry, playful treatment of the Thelonious Monk composition "We See." It's an astute and swinging performance, full of twists and turns. And there's an extramusical twist besides: last year, Hersch was nominated in the same category for a solo on the same tune. (That version came from the album Sunday Night at The Vanguard. His label, Palmetto Records, made a video for the occasion.) Could the second time be the charm? As the song (almost) puts it, we'll see.
Best Jazz Vocal Album
The nominees in this category amount to a murderer's row. Freddy Cole. Kurt Elling. Kate McGarry. Raul Midón. And, in her third consecutive nomination, Cécile McLorin Salvant — for The Window, an album of duets with pianist Sullivan Fortner. I've made no secret of my admiration for this artist, in this particular alignment, and I would be happy to see her pick up her third Grammy Award.
But it would also be a notable achievement for Fortner, who is less an accompanist than a full collaborator on The Window. (He played a similar role, at times, on a recent album by Paul Simon.) Hear what he does with this version of "Somewhere," the centerpiece ballad from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story.
Best Jazz Instrumental Album
It isn't every year that the category for Best Jazz Instrumental Album contains such an admirable breadth of style and scale. The aforementioned Hersch and Mehldau are nominated, as is saxophonist Tia Fuller, who would be only the second woman to win this award. (The first was her album's producer, Terri Lyne Carrington.) I'm also pleased to see a nod for Still Dreaming, by saxophonist Joshua Redman. But my full allegiance lies with Emanon, the magnum opus by Wayne Shorter, which has just recently found its way to digital and streaming services.
Shorter has had a year for the ages: shortly after his apperance at the Kennedy Center Honors, Emanon came in at the top of the NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll. When Shorter then had to cancel an SFJAZZ residency in early January, it was converted into an all-star tribute, with appearances by Redman, Terence Blanchard, Branford Marsalis, Kamasi Washington and others. A win at this Grammy Awards would continue the momentum. More than that, it would be a deserving honor for this album, which Shorter has clearly been working toward.
Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album
This category features big bands both old-fashioned and newfangled. The Count Basie Orchestra, directed by Scotty Barnhart, is the most traditional of the bunch. Jim McNeely, working with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, and John Daversa, leading a band stocked with DACA Artists, occupy a more modernistic plane. And the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, whose namesake is a composer and drummer, could hardly be more progressive. But something feels especially right about a first-time nomination for pianist Orrin Evans, and his Captain Black Big Band.
Evans is hardly a new face, but he's been enjoying a breakout season of sorts. Last year he made his highly anticipated debut as a member of The Bad Plus, and was the subject of a glowing profile in The New York Times. What's striking about Presence, the album that secured his nomination, is his untroubled self-assurance as a bandleader. Listen to the track above, an arrangement of an older piece called "Flip the Script," and notice how Evans makes room for saxophonists Troy Roberts and Caleb Curtis, putting them in a position to shine. (And shine they do.)
Best Latin Jazz Album
Any one of the contenders here could come away with a Grammy, and it would feel fully justified. Clarinetist and tenor saxophonist Eddie Daniels created something remarkably heartfelt with Heart of Brazil, just as pianist Elio Villafranca made a strong socio-historical statement with Cinque. I'd be equally happy to see a win for Bobby Sanabria's Multiverse Big Band, and their West Side Story Reimagined, or the aforementioned Zenón and Spektral Quartet, for Yo Soy La Tradición.
But the album I'm flagging is Back to the Sunset, by drummer-composer Dafnis Prieto. It's at once a personal exploration of music from his native Cuba and a thoughtful push into state-of-the-art orchestration. (One of the vagaries of Grammy season is the way each category gets parsed. On the strength of the writing and execution, this could have been cross-listed in Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album.) Listen to how much action, and how many layers of polyrhythm, are packed into the closing track, "The Triumphant Journey." That title applies to cultural migration in the Afro-Cuban diaspora; we don't have to wait long to see whether it also applies to Prieto's trip to the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
The 61st Annual Grammy Awards will broadcast live on CBS beginning at 8 p.m. this Sunday, Feb. 10. For more information, visit grammy.com.