By Devon Wendell
So the year 2015 is quickly winding down. And although there are no signs of any healthy seasonal changes here in the belly of Hollywood California, the cold and heartless calendar never lies. This means the Grammy awards are rapidly approaching.
It has become an invalid and overly predictable cliché to bash the Grammys in the guise of “keeping it real” when the reality is that winning a Grammy means an artist gets more work, a lot more work, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. Jazz musicians could always use more work. It’s far from an easy life.
This year I truly hope that the Grammys will give some very special jazz musicians the worldwide recognition that they so sorely deserve and have worked so hard for, resulting in more gigs and sessions in the future.
There are tons of new faces and brightly shining stars in the world of jazz today. I’ve chosen to highlight a few projects released this year that I personally believe deserve to win the Award.
Kind Of New by Jason Miles and Ingrid Jensen is this electric and beautifully original, funky lullaby to Miles Davis’ electric years of the ‘70s. Way too many people try to mimic Miles Davis’ sound, attitude, and body language instead of serving up something that Miles would have been proud to call a special and fitting tribute to his creative philosophy. Keyboardist, producer, and arranger Jason Miles and master trumpeter Ingrid Jensen accomplished this with a sly wit, slick mastery, and amazing chemistry on Kind Of New. This spectacular album gets better with each listen and should not be overlooked.
Then you have tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s The Epic. In all my years on this planet, I’ve never witnessed one young individual give so many people hope about where jazz can go today, in our present time, the way Kamasi Washington does. Wayne Shorter once said “jazz is not mandated to sound like jazz”; he believes that this music can go anywhere and say anything. All you have to do is listen to Washington’s The Epic to know that Wayne is absolutely correct. I’ve seen Washington in a big band setting and with smaller groups and his understanding of jazz does not merely come from the text books and charts. It is born out of someplace sacred and beautifully mysterious and burns brightly enough for all present to witness. Washington is open to hip-hop and R&B, and isn’t imprisoned by the rigid division of musical genres, yet he’s also one of the purest forces to emerge from the world of jazz in a long time. His sense of freedom and exploration has attracted people of all ages and musical tastes.
Moving on to Jennifer Leitham’s MOOD(S)WINGS, I would give anything to be able to play the bass like Jennifer. I’d give anything to compose like she does, or write witty yet vulnerable and often tongue and cheek lyrics that fit into a bold jazz trio setting like she does. There is no one like Leitham. She makes it all sound so easy on MOOD(S)WINGS, a soulful “crossover” album with sheer might and endless musical integrity. I first discovered Leitham’s music when she was playing with the late great Ed Shaughnessy in the summer of 2009 in Woodland Hills, California as part of The Playboy Jazz Festival. I was covering the show at the time and knew a lot about Shaughnessy’s legendary career. This master learned alongside Buddy Rich, but on that hot summer day, Leitham shook me to the core. I thought I was in-fact a good bass player and she shattered that sad myth within two bars. All of those years listening closely to Oscar Pettiford, Percy Heath, Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, Milt Hinton, and Ron Carter, and here is someone just as powerful with her own, immediately identifiable style. I knew I had to keep an ear on her back then and she just keeps getting greater and greater.
I’m not sure who the potential Grammy contenders are right now but I’m hoping that the voters will truly listen to these incredible artists whom I’ve chosen to highlight, and have some kind of awakening. The same kind of awakening I had when I heard Jason Miles and Ingrid Jensen play together on record for the first time, or that introduction to Kamasi Washington’s playing with Miles Moseley at The Piano Bar in Hollywood, many moons ago. And feel that magic I experienced when I first saw and heard Jennifer Leitham attack that upright bass with love and hope on a balmy day in the San Fernando Valley over six years ago.
With all the huge Warhol-like images of pop, hip-hop, and modern R&B stars that I’ll be exposed to while watching the 58th Annual Grammy Awards on February 15, 2016, all I can hold out for is hope, love, and quite possibly some jazz that this tired but ambitious journalist can truly get behind and that will stay with me forever, despite who wins that night.