The New Age Grammy category is always the hardest to figure out. Every year there are obvious choices I think should win. Yet last year, in what had been one of the best collection of nominees in a while with Brian Eno, Kitaro, R. Carlos Nakai and Peter Kater, an unknown and relatively unheard nominee, Laura Sullivan won for her album or parlor piano music, Love’s River. In what universe does that happen? In the Grammy’s New Age category.
Why? Because compared to rock, dance and even jazz, relatively few people vote in that category. That makes it easily manipulated. Any artist who can gin up their fan base amongst Academy members can overtake the category. You can be sure that Brian Eno did not mount a Grammy campaign last year, but Laura Sullivan did and it worked. This year will possibly see a similar pattern, except I suspect every artist on this list is mounting campaigns.
It’s a good collection of nominees comprised almost entirely of veterans and frequent Grammy Nominees and a couple of winners in Kitaro and David Darling. Although over all this may be the most “New Age” class of nominees yet, they do cover a wide range of styles including two albums with eastern modes. Paul Avgerinos lodges the most new age album of the lot with Bhakti. Always a musician with his heart on his chakras, Bhakti is an album of sweetly soothing moods, full of sitars, bansuri flutes and Hindi chants. Avgerinos creates some beautiful arrangements and instrumental tracks like “”A Path With Heart” stand out with its sinewy sarangi solo, but the chanting on most tracks, especially when Avgerinos layers his own multi-tracked vocals, become soporific.
The other Indian album is Winds of Samsara, the collaboration between India’s Ricky Kej and South African flute player Wouter Kellerman. It’s a lush and deeply layered recording with some 120 musicians from India, all over Africa, the United States and Australia. Kej is a master orchestrator who surrounds Kellerman’s flute melodies with subtle synth pads and all kinds of instrumentation, much of it from India. Kellerman is a musician usually found playing a lighter, world beat jazz sound in South Africa. But Kej, inspired by themes of global peace, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, brings out a deeper side to this musician.
Pianist Peter Kater is the Susan Lucci of the New Age Grammys, only he hasn’t won yet. This is his 10th nomination, but don’t worry, Lucci finally won on her 19th go-round. R. Carlos Nakai has even more nominations, with 11. Their 2014 release, Ritual is their 5th full album together in a collaboration that goes back to the 1990 album, Natives. Ritual follows the form of those recordings, especially the middle releases Migration and Honorable Sky with compositions leaving lots of room for improvisation. Kater and Nakai always bring out the best in each other with Kater eschewing his more sentimental tendencies and Nakai embracing more of a melodic arc in his solos. The two musicians define pensive in this work of slow melancholy and quiet emotional release.
Kitaro’s Symphony Live in Istanbul is his 16th Grammy nomination. He won in 2001 for Thinking of You, which was recently reissued. With Symphony Live in Istanbul , Kitaro has his compositions deployed through the Alexandra Symphony Orchestra. The repertoire includes Kitaro‘s theme from the Oliver Stone film Heaven & Earth, music from Kojiki one of his most underrated and dynamic albums, as well as “Silk Road” two compositions from Thinking Of You. New material includes “Kokoro (Part II).” The orchestra gives Kitaro a different timbral palette although that sometimes turns it into generic orchestral film music. “Mercury” is given an atmospheric treatment with Kitaro playing Native American flute instead of his usual keyboards.
The outlier in this year’s nominees is In Love and Longing by singer Silvia Nakkach and cellist David Darling. Nakkach’s Wikipedia entry describes her as “a pioneer in the field of sound, transformation of consciousness and music shamanism.” That puts her firmly on New Age terrain, but in another setting, with a different set of imagery, she might be considered an avant-garde vocalist in the spirit of Meredith Monk, Joan LaBarbara or Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard. Although she doesn’t match them in vocal technique or depth of sound, when she sings wordless vocalese in a hushed voice, it’s like she’s whispering incantations into your ear. Her English lyrics, however, tend toward the banal. The music is heavily improvised and despite the new age imagery and philosophy behind it, it’s easily the most adventurous record in the lot. David Darling, as ever, elevates it with his layered cello orchestrations.
Those are the nominees this year. My pick for the award would be Winds of Samsara by Ricky Kej and Wouter Kellerman. The Paul Avgerinos is simply too sweet and repetitive, Kater & Nakai’s Ritual is a beautiful record, but we have been here before,. Even more so, Kitaro’s Live in Istanbul, is a glorified greatest hits album. Nakkach and Darlings “In Love and Longing” gets a lot of points for playing on the edge, but is ultimately a little too vaporous; a mood floating unmoored.
That leaves Ricky Kej & Wouter Kellerman’s Winds of Samsara, which pushes the envelope for both musicians and is easily the most ambitious album here. The two artists pull out all the stops and while it’s not brilliant from beginning to end, when it works, it’s a compelling and evocative trans-global sound, the music from a world you’d like to live in.
Unless someone here mounts a successful campaign, the actual winner will probably be Kitaro, who is still the highest profile artist in the group.
On another note, I was sad to see that the newly implemented Contemporary Instrumental Album category which replaced the Pop Instrumental Category has gone the way it has. Pop Instrumental opened the door for artists like George Winston. I had thought that Contemporary Instrumental would open that door even more but instead, except for Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer’s Bass & Mandolin, it’s been completely overrun by Smooth Jazz artists, kicked out of the Jazz subcategories. That’s a shame.
Here’s some of my Grammy Picks
Record of the Year
Could not care less among the nominees
Album of the Year
Should Win:Beck – Morning Phase
Will Win: Beyoncé – Beyoncé
Song of the Year
Should Win: Hozier “Take Me To Church”
Will Win: Taylor Swift “Shake It Off”
Best New Artist
I don’t know, but whoever wins deserves the Best New Artist Kiss of Death
Best Dance/Electronic Album
Should Win: Deadmau5 – While (1<5)
Will Win: Not a Clue.
Best Rock Album
Should Win: Beck – Morning Phase (even though it doesn’t actually rock)
Will Win: Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams
Best New Age Album
Should Win: Ricky Kej & Wouter Kellerman – Winds of Samsara
Will Win: Kitaro – Symphony Live in Istanbul
Best Alternative Rock Album
Should Win: St. Vincent – St. Vincent
Will Win: St. Vincent – St. Vincent
Best World Music Album
Should Win: Anoushka Shankar – Traces of You
Will Win: Anoushka Shankar – Traces of You
Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media
Should Win: Thomas Newman – Saving Mr. Banks
Will Win: Christophe Beck – Frozen
The 57th Grammy Awards will be telecast on Sunday February 8 at 8PM on CBS. Don’t look for most of these artists there, however. Those awards are given off-screen during the day, but there should be a webcast of the event.
Hear the rest of my Grammy picks on Echoes at the Grammy’s Friday night, February 7, 2015.