Discover more from Why is this interesting?
The Alternative Jazz Edition
On progress, the grammies, and the future of jazz
Graydon here. When I was growing up in the ‘90s, jazz was increasingly treated with the mix of disinterest and feigned respect typically reserved for classical music. Precious and boring, it should be put behind glass for preservation and veneration. Institutions like Lincoln Center and PBS began carving its story into stone. The final chapter in the book of jazz had been written. It was time to celebrate the genre for what it was, not what it could be.
PAID AD: Miki here. I'm the founder of YoEmbryo, where we are building okCupid for embryo donation. The idea came out of our own experience trying to find families to donate our remaining embryos after IVF. YoEmbryo's purpose is to normalize embryo donation, particularly as something that creates a bond between families, rather than a simply transactional act. If you have frozen embryos or are somewhere in your fertility journey where you're starting to contemplate all the emotional and ethical complexities around infertility, donation, and genetic connection (or you're just curious), you should check us out. Visit YoEmbryo.com to learn more.
Want to run an ad in WITI? Get in touch.
I hated that attitude. I resented (although admittedly still enjoyed the work of) individuals like Wynton Marsalis and Ken Burns for propagating it. Sure, in the 1960s and ‘70s, the genre had been pushed to what felt like the brink. Free jazz musicians like Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and Don Cherry had gone looking for an aesthetic terminus. Many believed they found it. But that didn’t actually mean there was nothing original to be played. We just needed somebody much more talented than me to find their way through the dusty libraries and hushed performance halls where the genre was calcifying to a place where jazz could be what it once was: messy and expressive. We needed someone to chart a path to somewhere new.
Why is this interesting?
On Friday, when the 2024 Grammy nominees are announced, there is going to be a new category: Best Alternative Jazz Album. I don’t care all that much about the Grammys—I haven’t tuned into the award show in decades—but nonetheless, this small addition, cataloged somewhere towards the bottom of a very long list of more popular genres and formats, feels like a victory. It’s institutional recognition of a movement driven by labels such as International Anthem, Eremite Records, and Gondwana Records that has been building over the last decade. It’s an acknowledgment that not all roads lead back to the jazz canon. It’s proof that we can still chart paths to somewhere new.
The category’s addition is a bit of a surprise (at least it was to me) but not exactly a shock. This is the most exciting moment in jazz in over 40 years. Jeff Parker, Daniel Villareal, Blue Lake, Ben Lamar Gay, Vijay Iyer, Angel Bat Dawid, Matthew Halsall, Makaya McCraven, Alabaster DePlume, Natural Information Society. They are all creating challenging, omnivorous, beautiful music that absorbs everything from folk to ambient to orchestral as it searches for fresh forms of expression.
I have no idea which albums will be nominated. There are too many good ones released in 2023 for them all to be recognized. Pitchfork speculated the nominees would be Angel Bat Dawid’s Requiem for Jazz, Blue Lake’s Sun Arcs, Jeff Parker’s Mondays at The Enfield Tennis Academy, Jaimie Branch’s Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((world war)), or Love In Exile, a collaboration from Jijay Iyer, Arooj Aftab, and Shahzad Ismaily. These are all terrific albums and would be worthy nominees, but I could easily see Alabaster DePlume’s Come with Fierce Grace or National Information Society’s Since Time is Gravity also making the list.
If I were handing out the award, it would go to either Jaimie Branch or Jeff Parker. Branch, who died of an accidental drug overdose in August of 2022, was emerging as a major force in the genre. Her posthumous album shows just how big her vision was and how capable she was at realizing it. Meanwhile, Parker’s album, which is not available on any streaming platform*, is my favorite jazz album in years. The interplay between guitarist Parker (whom you may know from his years in the band Tortoise), bassist Anna Butterss (whose 2022 debut album Activities is quite good), saxophonist Josh Johnson and drummer Jay Bellerose is enchanting. You can feel how intimately the quartet is connected. It rivals any of the great west coast live sessions that have been recorded over the last century, a claim I don’t make lightly.
My only issue with the category? The name. These aren’t the best alternative jazz albums. These are the best jazz albums of the last year, period. They aren’t an alternative. There is no alternative. These are the men and women forging the shape of jazz to come. Hopefully, in future years the Recording Academy realizes these sorts of works should be competing for Best Jazz Album and not a sub-category.
Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Graydon (GG)
Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing.