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The Standard Bearers: In Jazz Categories, The Grammys Remain Focused On The Past

Ravi Coltrane (left) performing with Matthew Garrison (center) and Jack DeJohnette (right) in October. Coltrane is nominated for Best Improvised Jazz Solo at the 2017 Grammy Awards for the title track from <em>In Movement</em>, recorded with Garrison and DeJohnette.
Roberto Serra
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Ravi Coltrane (left) performing with Matthew Garrison (center) and Jack DeJohnette (right) in October. Coltrane is nominated for Best Improvised Jazz Solo at the 2017 Grammy Awards for the title track from In Movement, recorded with Garrison and DeJohnette.

The Fred Hersch Trio brings a seductive and crafty intelligence to its version of "We See," the Thelonious Monk tune. Articulating its melody at the piano, Hersch slips in a few leisurely pauses, which slow down and stretch out the form. Then, in the bridge, he ratchets up to twice the speed, evoking the frenetic whir of the factory machinery in Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times.

The track suggests a clever, affectionate tribute to an enduring work of art — and that's before Hersch even gets around to his jaunty yet exploratory piano solo. On Sunday, Hersch could conceivably win a Grammy for that solo, and another for Sunday Night at the Vanguard, the album on which "We See" appears.

Hersch is a veteran Grammy nominee, and he'd be a deserving winner. But along with a high level of artistry, his nominations this year attest to a persistent and pervasive truth in jazz: When it comes to glittery recognition from the Recording Academy, as with broader popular acclaim, the scale is usually tipped in favor of standards.

This year's nominee pool for Best Improvised Jazz Solo also includes pianist Brad Mehldau suavely gliding through Cole Porter's "I Concentrate On You," and guitarist John Scofield taking a postbop trot through Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Joey Alexander, the 13-year-old piano wunderkind, earned his seat at the table this year with "Countdown," a John Coltrane composition long understood as the jazz equivalent of an Olympic qualifying trial.

These nominees underscore the point, reminding us of the outsize influence that a standard repertoire can hold — especially among a constituency searching for some criteria by which to judge. If you know "We See" — a lesser-known Monk tune that nonetheless comes with the imprimatur of an acknowledged giant — you're prepared to grasp the particular achievement of Hersch and his trio: Their tweaks to the song flatter your understanding, delivering a wink and a nudge. Grammy voters like that feeling, at least as much as the rest of us do.

What makes a jazz standard, exactly? Broadly speaking, they're songs in common-language circulation, including but not restricted to much of what we call the Great American Songbook. Jazz musicians have long grown up with this repertoire, internalizing its lessons. "Not learning these songs puts a jazz player on a quick path to unemployment," writes critic Ted Gioia in his 2012 book The Jazz Standards, an explicit attempt to formalize a canon.

But there's a lot more to jazz than any standard framework can accommodate. Most of the vital work now being done involves original music, in a range of expression and style. This is the benchmark rewarded by commissioning bodies, arts institutions and the more adventurous pockets of the listening public.

Consider the 2016 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll, compiled by Francis Davis. A survey of almost 140 active jazz critics worldwide, it's among the closest things we have to an official consensus. And the best jazz album last year, according to the poll, was Old Locks and Irregular Verbs, a stormy new suite by multireedist Henry Threadgill, who also won the Pulitzer Prize for Composition last year. As with trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith, who had two albums in the Top 5, and guitarist Mary Halvorson, who came in at No. 4 (and topped my own list), Threadgill is an artist for whom the word "original" doesn't seem remotely sufficient.

The implicit assumption is that artists like Threadgill are excluded from the Grammy conversation because of an Academy bias toward aesthetic conservatism. There's truth to that, and not just in the jazz field. But I've come to believe that the issue also has a lot to do with a recognizable yardstick for accomplishment — or, as it happens, the lack thereof. A voter attempting to apprehend Old Locks and Irregular Verbs would have to accept the album entirely on its own terms, which of course is to Threadgill's credit as an artist (but to his detriment at the Grammys).

In addition to Hersch's Sunday Night at the Vanguard, this year's contenders for Best Jazz Instrumental Album include Scofield, whose Country For Old Men is a more intrepid excursion than its title would suggest; pianist Kenny Barron, whose Book Of Intuition is a superb trio outing, far from complacent or "safe"; and Mehldau for Nearness, an intimate yet searching duo album with saxophonist Joshua Redman.

What these albums have in common, beyond the A-list name value, is the inclusion of tunes that almost any jazz-voting Academy member would know. Mehldau and Redman dig into some Monk, as does Barron. Scofield's album makes unlikely jazz standards out of beloved old country songs.

There are originals here too, but the presence of familiar signposts means that even a casual listener can trace his or her way through the form. It's no accident that pianist Herbie Hancock, one of the most Grammy-lauded jazz artists in history, received most of his awards for reinventions of one sort or another: George Gershwin, Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell. His two most recent awards were for The Imagine Project, an all-star crossover summit of an album, featuring a slew of pop covers. (His first two awards were in the R&B field, beginning with his knockout win for "Rockit.")

In light of such well-established precedent, it's always worth noting the exceptions. In the category of Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album, among releases devoted to Monk and The Beatles, you'll find a pair of suites that stake out very different places in the political discourse: Real Enemies, by Darcy James Argue's Secret Society; and Presidential Suite: Eight Variations On Freedom, by the Ted Nash Big Band.

But the real outlier may be back in Best Improvised Jazz Solo, where Ravi Coltrane is nominated for a lithe, impassioned soprano saxophone performance on the title track of In Movement, his album with bass guitarist Matthew Garrison and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

"In Movement" is a spontaneous composition, forged out of real-time interplay among the musicians. Beginning with a light shower of bass arpeggios and a blinking rhythmic loop, the piece gradually assumes a mood of shadowy intrigue, through which Coltrane's soprano sweeps like a searchlight.

The track is captivating, and duly celebrated: In Movement came in at No. 3 in the NPR poll. It would be a bold choice for a Grammy win, but don't hold your breath. The only standard it represents is a standard of excellence, and that by itself often only gets you so far.

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