Bay Area artists may be largely locked out of the 56th Grammy Awards' glamour categories, but when it comes to jazz, blues, folk and Latin music, our region is well represented this year, with several dark horse candidates up against far better-known acts. In the various rock, hip hop, pop, R&B, and country categories for which trophies will be handed out on the Jan. 26 CBS broadcast from Los Angeles' Staples Center, Neil Young is the only Northern Californian in the race (his Psychedelic Pill is up for Best Rock Album).
Whether Young wins another Grammy ultimately means little to his legacy or bottom line, but for artists in downstream categories, who get their awards at a pre-telecast event Sunday afternoon at the Nokia Theater across from Staples, a Grammy triumph can provide a significant career boost (the ceremony can be viewed live at grammylive.com). For Chris Strachwitz, the tireless roots music champion who has documented numerous traditions across the Americas, winning a Grammy for Best Folk Album would serve as a brilliant career capstone.
The four-CD album They All Played For Us: Arhoolie Records 50th Anniversary Celebration captures the marathon concert held at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage in 2011 to help support Strachwitz's label and life's work. Focusing on blues, bluegrass, folkloric Mexican and Cajun musicians, the album features Los Cenzontles, Ry Cooder, Peter Rowan, the Creole Belles, Treme Brass Band, the Savoy Family Band, and Taj Mahal among many others.
Bay Area blues legend Charlie Musselwhite, who made one of his early recordings for Arhoolie, is up for three Grammys, and taking home a trophy would help fuel a creative resurgence that's returned him to the top of the blues heap. He's competing against himself for Best Blues Album with nominations for Get Up!, his collaboration with Ben Harper, and Remembering Little Walter, an all-star harmonica session that also features Billy Boy Arnold, Sugar Ray Norcia, James Harman, and East Bay harp ace Mark Hummel.
With eight previous nominations but no Grammy wins, Musselwhite is thrilled to be in the running again, even if two nominations in the same category means "they could split the vote and I'd be out of luck, but it could be a tie and I'd get two," he says with the wry chuckle of a man whose optimism is hard-earned. "I feel like winning is great, but not winning is okay too. It's great to be in the game."
On the verge of his 70th birthday, Musselwhite is bona fide blues royalty with a mantle crowded with more than a dozen W. C. Handy Awards (now known as the Blues Music Awards). He learned his craft on the Chicago scene in the early 1960s, and made his San Francisco debut at the Fillmore in 1968 on a typical Bill Graham program with Cream and fellow Chicago blues great Paul Butterfield. With work and sunshine more bountiful in the Bay Area than Chicago, Musselwhite decided to stay.
"When I walked into the Fillmore that first time it looked huge," he says. "I was used to these rough juke joint bars in Chicago. Now I walk in and it doesn't look so big."
He first connected with Ben Harper almost two decades ago through their mutual friend John Lee Hooker at a gig at Sweetwater, and they struck up a mutual admiration society. After performing on each other's albums several times, they decided to record a whole session together, but their rigorous touring schedules meant that years passed before they were able to make it happen.
"Finally, we were both off at the same time and the music was like a herd of wild horses waiting to get out," Musselwhite says. "We did every song in one or two takes, with no overdubs except for some girls' vocals. It was a magical time, and then we started touring together and it kept getting better."
Musselwhite's third Grammy nomination is for Best Music Film for
I'm In I'm Out And I'm Gone: The Making Of Get Up!, which was produced by Harper and directed by Danny Clinch. When he's not working with Harper, he's spent the past few years touring with Hot Tuna and Cyndi Lauper. "I'm real busy," Musselwhite says. "If I won the lottery I might slow down a little bit, but I'm having a lot of fun. I feel better now than I did 30 years ago. Life is good."
If Musselwhite's nominations serve as a salute to a bluesman in winter, the Pacific Mambo Orchestra's nomination for Best Tropical Latin Album is a David and Goliath tale in the making. The 19-piece Bay Area band's eponymous debut is up against albums by major label heavyhitters like Marc Anthony, Sergio George, and Carlos Vives.
Founded in 2010 by trumpeter Stephen Kuehn, who was born and raised in Germany, and Christian Tumalan, a conservatory-trained pianist from Mexico, the PMO represents the Bay Area's wealth of talent when it comes to jazz and Latin music. While the group spent its formative years playing for dancers at San Francisco's Café Cocomo on Monday nights, the band landed high-powered management and toured last year with Tito Puente Jr., playing performing arts centers around the country.
Still, earning a nomination for a self-produced album released on their own indie label came as a shock. "I got the call from Michael Lazarus, who mastered our album and I just hollered," Kuehn says.
Kuehn knows that the sheer power of Marc Anthony's name recognition means the odds of winning are slim, and three of the other four nominees are on Sony Music Latin, the genre's dominant label. He's hoping for an upset of course, but as far as he's concerned the Pacific Mambo Orchestra has already made its mark. "We really beat the odds," Kuehn says. "The Grammy-nominated title will be with us forever."
When NARAS announced that it was doing away with the Best Latin Jazz Album Grammy Award several years ago, Bay Area artists like John Santos and Wayne Wallace were in the forefront of the effort to reverse the decision. In the second year back, the category includes two artists with deep Bay Area ties, Cuban pianist Omar Sosa, who became a jazz star while living in Oakland but has long resided in Spain, and Wayne Wallace himself, who earned his sixth Grammy nomination for Latin Jazz-Jazz Latin with his longtime quintet featuring pianist Murray Low, bassist David Belove, percussion master Michael Spiro and drummer/percussionist Colin Douglas.
"It's totally different than the first time we were nominated, but I'm not blasé," Wallace says from Indiana, where he accepted a professorship at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music last year. "There's a sense of validation that goes beyond the sheer joy. I'm excited. It's so utterly freaking cool."
What's particularly sweet for Wallace is that he released the album on his Patois Records, which has become a vital outlet for some of the Bay Area's most creative Latin jazz artists. Like Sosa, whose album is on Oakland-based Otá Records, he's up against big names like Spanish flamenco diva Buika, Cuban reed maestro Paquito D'Rivera, and rising Cuban piano star Roberta Fonseca. Win or lose, Wallace is looking forward to the party in LA.
"I wouldn't miss it for the world," he says. "The pre-telecast is not the big 10 categories. You've got the zydeco, blues and classical musicians all hanging out and genuinely excited to be there. The Grammy All-Star High School Band plays. It's a beautiful hang, with a nice sense of community."
Good luck to all Bay Area artists, engineers, and writers up for a Grammy.
The Grammy Awards are Sunday, January 26, 2014 starting at 9am. For more information visit grammy.com.