The Grammy Awards still find lots of time to celebrate successful, insubstantial music. However, starting with Bonnie Raitt twenty or so years ago, it has found a new role: to give an attention boost to CDs by artists who were once exciting and now make music that is Good For You.
Last year’s choice (Herbie Hancock’s Joni Mitchell tribute) was notably off the wall. This year’s pick, the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss collaboration Raising Sand, was a tad less startling. However, I did notice a Chicago Tribune article by Greg Kot in praise of Plant after his Grammy win. Noting that Plant chose to walk away from a potential Led Zeppelin reunion tour to record and promote this disc, Kot compared him favorably with the members of several famous bands who are regrouping under their old name, playing the old songs and making quick money. One example he gave was the Dead.
Around the same time as all this, the latest CD Yesterdays by Keith Jarrett’s trio came out. Jarrett’s solo concerts are built on surprise, but his Standards Trio is not for those seeking surprises. In fact, its fans have learned to accept a set of quirks almost as cultish as the Dead’s: old material (a common feature for many jazz players but odd considering these musicians’ other projects), recordings sitting for some time before release (_Yesterdays_ was recorded in 2001) and Jarrett’s oft-mentioned vocalizing.
These were some reasons why the trio left me cold when I was first discovering jazz. Others in that field (Miles, Monk, Ornette Coleman) had a decidedly more rock-ish set of values – new material, surprises each time out. Ditto for Jarrett’s solo concerts and his 70’s quartets.
However, perhaps as I get older and less rock-oriented myself, the trio makes more sense. It is about the continued exploration of landmarks. About history behind each piece of music (hearing “Shaw ‘Nuff” on the new CD brings thoughts of the birth of bebop, while “A Sleepin’ Bee” evokes Bill Evans). About looking for surprise in the details rather than the superficial aspects. (Oddly enough, Raising Sand is also more historical than Plant’s usual fare, and thus new in its own way. So was Jarrett’s trio, in the 80’s. Where would we music writers be without paradox?).
The Dead’s outing this year may not come close to that (unintentional pun alert) standard. And quite honestly, despite occasional attempts I have not persuaded myself to get interested in hearing these guys without their former lead guitarist. However, they have always had a jazz influence, and, if it works out well, they may succeed in finding valuable music in old material, just as the Standards Trio does.
The Grammys will probably ignore the Dead, though, and although Yesterdays may win something it’ll be in one of those non-televised categories. That is just as well.