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Considering Chick Corea's Grammys Success And The Kitchen Sink Of Genre

Chick Corea, holding a freshly won Grammy in the award ceremony's press room in LA on Feb. 8, 2015.
Frederic J. Brown
AFP via Getty Images
Chick Corea, holding a freshly won Grammy in the award ceremony's press room in LA on Feb. 8, 2015.

Chick Corea was the recipient of 23 Grammy awards, the most of any jazz artist ever, when he died shockingly last month, at 79. He could add two more to his tally at the 63rd Grammys this Sunday: Best Improvised Jazz Solo, for his crisp piano excursion on "All Blues," and Best Jazz Instrumental Album, for Trilogy 2,on which that performance appears.

A posthumous honor would hardly be out of character for The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which in 2004 bestowed a total of eight Grammys, including Album of the Year, on the late Ray Charles. A fresh garland or two for Corea feels like the obvious memorial gesture. And for those predisposed to critique the Recording Academy as a conservative body, it would be telling to see him win one in association with a tune that first surfaced more than 60 years ago, "All Blues,", from Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.

If Corea's legacy haunts the jazz landscape in this year's Grammy awards, its effect will be both subtler and more pervasive than any throwback tribute. For one thing, final-round voting closed more than a month before his death, so results should be unclouded by sentimentality. And Corea was the exact opposite of a genre essentialist, though he always self-identified as a jazz musician. His artistic purview was capacious enough to encompass acoustic post-bop and electronica; Mozart and Mongo Santamaría; Brazilian samba and Spanish flamenco; and just about every subspecies of fusion. His first Grammy award, in 1975, was for "No Mystery," a wistfully springy prog-chamber anthem he composed for his band Return To Forever. Like the scope of his career, it defies fixed placement along any grid.

In other words, Corea was always practicing the sort of genre fluidity we now consider a core competency, simply by pursuing his own fascinations. Which made him both an ideal paragon for Grammy ubiquity — the sort of boundless virtuoso game enough to say, "Sure, I'll play a live telecast with The Foo Fighters" — and an outlier in a system ruled by sorting mechanisms. As Amanda Petrusich wrote in the New Yorkerthis week: "It's difficult to imagine a Grammy ceremony that doesn't rely on genre as its organizing principle — I suppose that would entail the bestowing of just one award, Best Music — yet genre feels increasingly irrelevant to the way we think about, create, and consume art."

Corea was making this point at least as early as 1983, when he told The New York Timesthat the relentless categorizing of music was less a concern of musicians than a preoccupation of "the media and the businessmen, who, after all, have a vested interest in keeping marketing clear cut and separate." What he didn't acknowledge then was the rise of a rigorous strain of jazz traditionalism, which was already beginning to reshape the discourse and commerce around the music. For the rest of the 1980s, and well into the '90s, the path of least resistance for mainstream jazz artists would closely resemble the path forged by their predecessors. Not that Corea let it stifle his eclecticism, or even his more garish enthusiasms.

His partners on Trilogy 2, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade, were distinguished products of that neo-traditionalist era. So too were saxophonist Joshua Redman and pianist Brad Mehldau — who joined McBride and Blade in the high-profile reunion that produced RoundAgain,another contender for Best Jazz Instrumental Album. But each of those artists has also exercised broad license to cross genre lines, or to blur them past the point of delineation. The same holds true for the other nominees in the jazz instrumental category: drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, with her project Social Science; trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, with his fearless band; and pianist Gerald Clayton, with an ace quintet.

Clayton's nominated album, Happening: Live at the Village Vanguard, comes with precisely the same pedigree as another nominated album, Jon Batiste's Chronology of a Dream: Live at the Village Vanguard.But you won't find Batiste — the percussive pianist, exuberant singer, Pixar proxy and Late Showbandleader — in the official jazz field. Instead, his Chronologyis in the running for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album, alongside releases by other apparent jazz fugitives, like Snarky Puppy, trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, and French harmonica ace Grégoire Maret (with pianist Romain Collin and guitarist Bill Frisell).

There's a cynical way to view this genre evasion. Could it be that Batiste and others — like singer-songwriter Gregory Porter and pianist Robert Glasper, who both scored nominations in the R&B field this year — are looking to level up their game, defying some pernicious form of jazz provincialism? It's certainly possible. But there's another interpretation, which jibes with the ideals embodied by Corea and some of his closest peers, like Herbie Hancock. It's worth remembering that Hancock won the first two of his 14 Grammy awards in R&B categories — the same lane that later opened up to Glasper, who has three so far.

Glasper once told me that the first jazz album he owned was a cassette of Alive,by the Chick Corea Akoustic Band. A few years ago, he followed the example set by Corea and settled in for a month-long residency at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York, showcasing a wild array of working projects. (One of them was R+R=NOW, a collective that includes aTunde Adjuah; you can hear highlights from its gig on a new album, LIVE.) Because he has had so much success in the musical estuary where jazz meets hip-hop and R&B, Glasper is often asked to talk about genre. Sometimes his replies are flippant, but sometimes they're instructive. "I'm a jazz musician at my core," he told Okayplayer in 2019. "I go by the old definition. Back in the day, in the '60s, when you heard that somebody was a jazz musician, you were excited, because you knew they could play other things." He added: "So to me, when you're a jazz musician that's supposed to mean you have the tools to master any other genre of music."

That permissive definition may be the best way to explain why there are so many jazz musicians scattered throughout the Grammy nominations, outside of their designated zone. It's not just "Best Contemporary Instrumental Music" that has become a de facto jazz category, but also much of the field devoted to nonclassical composing and arranging. The versatile pianist John Beasley has nominations in two arranging categories, where you'll also find saxophonist Remy Le Boeuf, the vocal group säje, and guitarist Pat Metheny (who has won 20 Grammys, and belongs in the same genre-exploding conversation as Corea and Hancock).

As for "Best Instrumental Composition": with the exception of film composer Alexandre Desplat, it's entirely a jazz award this year. The frontrunners are Maria Schneider, a five-time Grammy winner also in the running for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album, and Arturo O'Farrill, a four-time winner who also appears with his Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra among stiff competition for Best Latin Jazz Album.

One of those competitors, the Afro-Peruvian Jazz Orchestra, will be among the performers on a pre-telecast Grammy Premiere Ceremony at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday. Along with the likes of säje, Gregory Porter, saxophonist Kamasi Washington and singer Thana Alexa, they'll pay tribute to Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)," on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. It's the cheery sort of tribute-as-traffic-jam that has long been a trademark of the Grammys, but it's also a manifestation of the borderless landscape Corea spent his life exploring.

"A style is not something you learn so much as something that you synthesize," he said in that 1983 interview with the Times."Musicians don't care if a given composition is jazz, pop, or classical music. All they care about is whether it is good music — whether it is challenging and exciting."

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