By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
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By Christian Schaeffer
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The Grammys. Ugh. They suck, and we hate them.
But we love them, too, and look forward to witnessing the annual carnage; as with a bloody car crash, we watch and watch and watch, always wanting to turn away but never able to.
But after nominations, which were announced last Monday, we do what we always do: Mount our high horse and condescend. "The nominees are crap. They always are," we preach, then go on to list all the deserving musicians who never stand a chance because they're not hooked up, don't have the promotional budget to mount a viable campaign, and so on. Each year we hope for some magic, though, and this year we got some: A couple of St. Louis connections warrant a gushing round of applause (this, of course, amid the general mediocrity of nearly every single nominee -- except TLC, who deserve to win everything).
We were blind-sided by the much-deserved nomination of East St. Louis trumpet hero Russell Gunn for his transcendent, genre-fucked Ethnomusicology, Vol. 1 (Atlantic) in the category of Best Contemporary Jazz Performance. He's competing against David Sanborn, Bob James, Victor Wooten and Tim Hagans.
"It does matter," he says when asked how much stock he puts in award ceremonies. "When I made the record, I always thought that the record was good enough to be nominated, but I never thought it would be nominated. So I'm happy and surprised at the same time. But I thought for sure I wouldn't be, because a lot of the harder things on my album, a lot of things being hip-hop-oriented and not really pop-oriented. Then, when I saw the category -- I didn't even think to look at the category. I thought it would be in just the regular jazz category, but then it was in the contemporary-jazz category, which, I don't know, the lines are so -- it's like radio formatting. Nobody know's what's what.
"I'll be the first to say that I hope I win. I don't hope just to go and think, "Oh well, I got to go.' No. I want to win."
In the pop and rock categories, a nomination provides a huge bump in sales -- an even bigger one, if the artist wins. But, says Gunn, the contemporary-jazz category has a lower profile and is no guarantee of a breakout. "I've been around long enough now to know that nothing means nothing. I have friends that have been nominated and then dropped from their record company. I got dropped from my record company (Atlantic) before my nomination. I was dropped eight months after my record came out."
A damn shame, of course, considering the beauty of the record. Ethnomusicology, Vol. 1 is one of the most seamless meldings of jazz, hip-hop and rhythm & blues ever released (not such a sweeping statement, considering the embarrassing past efforts at combining the genres) and definitely one of the best records of last year. Gunn's dismissal from the Atlantic roster didn't seem to surprise him, though: "This business is really fucked-up. I'll just leave it at: I was the victim of the bottom line. One thing that I know, though, is that you can't keep anyone with a vision down. Ethnomusicology, Vol. 2 is coming sooner or later. It's coming. It might not be with Atlantic, but it's gonna come, believe me."
The nomination certainly can't hurt his chances of getting picked up by another label, though the options are fewer for a hip-hop/jazz artist than for a Kenny G-type lite artist. "Whether it will make it easier for me," he says, "I don't know. I can't say yes; I can't say no. At various stages in your career, you always think that the next thing means that it's going to be a lot easier from now on, and, to my experience, nothing really means that. So who knows?"
Gunn, who now lives in Atlanta, has just returned from a tour of Europe and, unfortunately for all of us, has no immediate plans to bring his amazing band to St. Louis. Here's hoping that the nomination will provide him with the bump to warrant a return.
Even more surprising in the scheme of things, though, is the nomination of St. Louis label MAXJAZZ's artist Carla Cook in the Best Jazz Vocal category. Not that she doesn't deserve it (though among the MAXJAZZ roster, we would have figured LaVerne Butler to get the nod, because she's received much more press); it's just that Grammy Awards on the whole are more preoccupied with big names than they are with finding "the best" recordings in a given year, and more often than not their "best" are found on major-label releases. The fledgling MAXJAZZ label, less than two years old, seems an unlikely candidate for honors from the Grammy Awards.
MAXJAZZ head honcho Rich McDonnell was ecstatic, though low-key, when contacted the day after the announcement: "We submitted each of our artists to NARAS (the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the governing body of the Grammy Awards) with the hopes that we would get some recognition, but as with this process, it's a bit mysterious, so we didn't necessarily expect it. So it was a pleasant surprise.