Grammys tune out the best improvised jazz solos

Donny McCaslin had one of the best improvised solos but wasn’t nominated.

The Grammys don’t know jazz.

Nowhere is this more evident, year after year, than in the award for best improvised jazz solo. Because most Grammy voters probably don’t spend much time thinking about what constitutes an exceptional solo, the same figures get honored year after year. The choices are safe, and they’re the biggest names in jazz.

Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, and Oscar Peterson have each won that award three times. Michael Brecker won it an astounding six times. If the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences is to be believed, these four folks have recorded nearly half of the best solos in jazz since 1977.


It’s simply not possible. This is not meant as a criticism of any of these artists, who are among the finest in their field. But one rarely hears these musicians take the sort of artistic leaps that risk alienating listeners - and that’s the sort of quality that the Grammys ought to recognize, too.

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Hancock, Marsalis, and the late Peterson are all from the same school, one that values taste and refinement at least as much as adventurous soloing (when Hancock’s not playing funk, that is). And Brecker - let’s be brutally honest here - won partly because of his vast connections in the music industry.

Brecker, who died in 2007, was an obvious choice for Grammy voters because of his huge crossover appeal, his dabblings in pop and R&B, and his immense body of session work with stars such as Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, and Billy Joel. Brecker had a stellar solo career as well, and his final album, “Pilgrimage,’’ was among the best jazz discs of 2007, but there’s no getting around the fact that Brecker was friends with everyone in the recording industry.

This year again the nominees for best improvised solo are household names: Randy Brecker (Michael’s brother), Ron Carter, Chick Corea, Fred Hersch, and Sonny Rollins. All immensely talented, all deserving of accolades. But did these five men serve up the most mind-blowing solos of the year? It would be some coincidence if the five best improvised solos from 2011 just happened to be recorded by five of jazz’s biggest stars.

What’s likelier is that Academy voters, consciously or not, limit the pool of potential nominees to artists whose names are known outside the small circle of people who buy more than one jazz CD a year. (This problem, of course, is not limited to jazz. The album of the year award belongs to Richard Buckner’s “Our Blood,’’ but that’s another story.)


If the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences actually wanted to give the improvised-solo Grammy to the most inspired, most daring, most accomplished passage of 2011, it might have looked outside the safe confines of big-name, mainstream, radio-friendly jazz and considered:

JD Allen: The young tenor saxophonist says so much with so little. On “Victory!’’, the title track from his trio’s third album, he states the simple melody and then lapses into a relaxed groove. With only bass and drums backing him, the focus is squarely on Allen. In four short minutes he delivers the theme twice and, in between, a quality-over-quantity solo comprising a series of ascending notes that skip and swirl, arpeggioed triads, choice grace notes, vibrato that varies in intensity, and clever use of dynamics.

Donny McCaslin: It sounds as though the tenor saxophonist wants to shred as he begins his solo on “Hands Down,’’ from the album “Perpetual Motion,’’ but McCaslin converts a long, high-pitched shriek into a flurry of descending tones; then he goes back up and hopscotches down the scale, playing against time and bending notes. As his solo progresses, he jerks phrases upward and punctuates passages with unexpected silences.

Matana Roberts: It’s hard to pick one solo from the 27-minute “My Sistr’’ that opens the tenor saxophonist’s album “Live in London.’’ Actually, for the first 17 minutes she doesn’t stop soloing. She begins with 71 seconds of unaccompanied blowing before drums, then bass, and finally piano join her. The tune’s aesthetic shifts several times, and through it all she keeps going with a breathtaking attack that is by turns blistering and soulful but always visceral. Cyclonic whirls and shuddering trills give way to heartfelt moments of yearning. For nearly half an hour, Roberts speaks, cries, and celebrates through her horn.

Matthew Shipp: “Take the A Train’’ is rarely done the way Shipp tackles it with his trio on “Art of the Improviser.’’ The pianist never truly states the theme. Instead he refers to it obliquely while rumbling around on the lower register and quickly picking out a few spiky notes up high. Once he’s satisfied the listener has a reference point, he pours out a storm of contrapuntal chords, rhythmic poundings, and speedy runs that only faintly point to Duke Ellington’s iconic standard.


David S. Ware: One of the greatest saxophonists free jazz has ever seen, Ware could conjure a hurricane with his monstrous sound and epic solos. “Passage Wudang,’’ 22 minutes of free improv from “Planetary Unknown,’’ is a career highlight. Playing in a quartet, Ware unleashes a relentless onslaught that creates its own form in the absence of melody or structure. As always, there is a raw, rough edge to Ware’s tone, but he is particularly impassioned here. Two thirds of the way through, he sustains an A for 25 seconds, and that one note is so big, so threatening, that it is simultaneously frightening and beautiful.

Should these be the five nominees for best improvised solo? I’m not quite suggesting that. But it would lend the category a bit of credibility if occasionally it looked beyond jazz’s biggest names.

Steve Greenlee can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SteveGreenlee.