Yet Another Awards Show…

Posted February 15th, 2013 at 8:46 pm (UTC+0)
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By Katherine Cole

One day I’m going to sit down and figure out exactly how many music awards shows there are in the US each year. It seems like the minute they strike the sets for one, another pops up on television. Just last Sunday we were all watching  The Grammys–and now here’s the list of nominees for the 48th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards.

North Carolina native Eric Church leads the pack this year with seven nominations, including Male Vocalist of the Year, Album of the Year for “Chief” and two Song of the Year nods. Two? Yes, two. One as the composer of  “Springsteen” and one for singing the song.

Right behind him, nomination-wise, is 21-year old singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Hunter Hayes.  If all goes his way, Hunter will be taking home six trophies, including New Male Vocalist of the Year and Song of the Year for “Wanted.” Hunter may be one of the younger artists in the ACM race this year, but here’s proof that he’s not new to performing!

And yes, there are women up for ACM awards. Miranda Lambert and Taylor Swift have five nominations apiece. The two will be  fighting it out  in two categories:  Female Vocalist of the Year and Entertainer of the Year. The other nominees for the Academy’s top honor are Jason Alden and the two gentlemen hosting the televised award show: Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton.

The ACM awards will be handed out in Las Vegas on April 7th.  Why not Nashville?  It makes sense once you know that the ACM got its start in 1964 as the Country and Western Music Academy, with the goal of promoting country music in the western US. The group held its first awards show in 1966 and winners that year included Kay Adams, Merle Haggard, and Buck Owens, who was named Top Male Vocalist.  That same year, Buck Owens and The Buckeroos were named Top Band of the Year.  Here’s a 1966 video of their 1965 hit “Tiger By The Tail.”  Check out Don Rich’s fabulous harmony singing and guitar picking on this one!

Host of VOA's Roots and Branches, and world traveler extraordinaire! When I'm not listening to music, I'm probably talking about it or thinking about the next band I'm going to see. Or my next interview! Join me every week for the best in folk, bluegrass and all other forms of American roots music!

Andrea Brachfeld, Lady Of The Island

Posted February 14th, 2013 at 6:37 pm (UTC+0)
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By Diaa Bekheet

After suffering a mysterious affliction that blocked her ability to play, jazz flutist  Andrea Brachfeld recently released a new album, Lady of the Island, her sixth. The disc is a mix of older standards and new, Latin-tinged compositions.  Though she grew up in New York studying jazz, Brachfeld first made her name playing a traditional style of Cuban dance music, “Charanga.” She’s been recognized as one of the first women in the U.S. to perform Charanga. I talked with Brachfeld (who happens to be one of my Twitter followers) and she told me how she got started playing Latin music:

Flutist Andrea Brachfeld at Birdland, New York (Courtesy A. Brachfeld)

Flutist Andrea Brachfeld at Birdland, New York (Courtesy A. Brachfeld)

“I was at a club and I was sitting in and somebody came up and said to me ‘Are you working?’ And I said ‘Not enough.’ And he said ‘Do you want to play Charanga music,’ which is Latin music? And I said ‘Sure.’ He said ‘Do you know how to play [it]?’ I said ‘No.’ He said ‘You’ll figure it out,’ ” recalls Brachfeld “I ended up being the first woman to play this music style in the United States. It just happened. I wasn’t trying.”


With her latest album, Brachfeld continues her transition back to “playing jazz flute as opposed to Latin jazz flute,” she says. Among the excellent musicians helping with that transition are trumpeter Wallace Roney and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, both of whom can be heard on the disc.

Brachfeld’s Discography:

  • Lady of the Island 2012
  • Songs from the Divine 2009
  • Into The World: A Musical Offering 2008
  • Beyond Standards 2006
  • Back With Sweet Passion 2003
  • Remembered Dreams 2001

Fashion-Policing The Grammys

Posted February 8th, 2013 at 6:37 pm (UTC+0)
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By Katherine Cole

The stars and their stylists have been shopping for months already, so the “what not to wear” warning issued by the CBS television network this week may be falling on deaf ears.  Just a few days after they accidentally broadcast Super Bowl MVP quarterback Joe Flacco uttering a few unsavory words, a memo has been leaked that shows the network urging the music industry to keep the Grammy telecast clean and classy. At least when it comes to clothing. The email, which first appeared on, warns performers and other artists likely to be on camera to avoid thong-type costumes. The network also asks that women’s tops be both secure and opaque, hoping, no doubt, to avoid the sort of  fall-out that occurred during Janet Jackson’s 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.  The memo also warns against bare sides, making me think Toni Braxton’s Grammy outfit from 2001 wouldn’t pass muster with network bosses this week!

It isn’t just skimpy clothing that Grammy hopes to avoid. Attendees are also cautioned not to advertise political or social causes too explicitly: “The Network requests that any organized cause visibly spelled out on talent’s wardrobe be avoided. This would include lapel pins or any other form of accessory.”

Earlier this week, I spoke with Grammy nominee  Tamara Johnson George  (Taj) about the return of SWV (Sisters With Voices). The group had a string of hits in the 90’s but split up, with the members not even speaking for ten years. Much to the delight of their fans, Taj,  LeAnne “LeLee” Lyons and Cheryl “Coko” Clemmons  were able to put their differences aside, reuniting and releasing “I Missed Us” last spring. The album debuted at #6 on the Billboard R&B chart and their cover of Patti LaBelle’s 1984 hit “If Only You Knew” earned SWV a Grammy nomination in the Best Traditional R&B Performance category.

Taj told me picking a Grammy outfit is serious business. ” You’re looking for the best outfit that is going to bring the most attention to you as possible. You want your hair to be perfect. Your makeup has to be perfect.  You have to learn how to walk down that red carpet and grab the media’s attention .”

It’s a safe guess that photos of the outfits chosen by the SWV ladies Taj, LeLee and Coko  will be up on their site soon after the 55th Grammy Awards are handed out Sunday in Los Angeles.

Host of VOA's Roots and Branches, and world traveler extraordinaire! When I'm not listening to music, I'm probably talking about it or thinking about the next band I'm going to see. Or my next interview! Join me every week for the best in folk, bluegrass and all other forms of American roots music!

Spotted: Billy Joel in Nashville

Posted February 7th, 2013 at 8:25 pm (UTC+0)

By Katherine Cole

Except for his powerful performance during the  Hurricane Sandy benefit concert last December, we haven’t had a lot of  Billy Joel spottings the past few years.

But that might be changing. He’s on the lineup of the New Orleans JazzFest this spring and just last week thrilled a crowd at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University when he took part in ” what was billed as An Evening of Questions and Answers and a Little Bit of Music.”  Open only to a thousand lucky students and faculty members, the event provided the thrill of a lifetime to an 18 year-old freshman from Rosyln, NY,  Michael Pollack.  According to a story in the Nashville Tennessean, Pollack  made a pact with his roommate  that if the Joel called on either of them during his Q-andA, they’d ask to come up on stage and perform with him.  What happened next? The Tennessean has this video (as long as you’re not squeamish about a few of the astonished expletives coming from the crowd).

Host of VOA's Roots and Branches, and world traveler extraordinaire! When I'm not listening to music, I'm probably talking about it or thinking about the next band I'm going to see. Or my next interview! Join me every week for the best in folk, bluegrass and all other forms of American roots music!

Who’s the Best New Artist?

Posted February 5th, 2013 at 10:15 pm (UTC+0)
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By Ray McDonald

I’ve been following the Grammy awards for four decades and never tire of one category in particular: Best New Artist. It’s sheer entertainment finding out who the Recording Academy sees fit to nominate. Past winners have included such howlers as the Starland Vocal Band and A Taste Of Honey. And let’s not forget those ill-fated lip-synchers Milli Vanilli, who were later stripped of their Best New Artist title once it was discovered they hadn’t sung a note on their album.

More often than not, however, this category rewards the truly deserving. Among the other victors over the years have been The Beatles, Mariah Carey, and Adele. This year’s crop of nominees ranges from folk to hip-hop, with nary a dud to be found.

Alabama Shakes is an exciting blues-rock outfit featuring a riveting lead singer, Brittany Howard. They formed in 2009 but only last year released their debut album, “Boys & Girls.” This band emphasizes real music over imagery…and I like it a lot.



Fun — or rather, “fun.” — is a quirky pop-rock outfit out of New York City. They  released their first album in 2009, so why the recognition now? The category looks at those artists who first came to prominence during the year. 2012 was a huge year for Fun; it stormed charts with two major singles, “We Are Young” and “Some Nights,” while bandleader Nate Ruess also became an in-demand songwriter and collaborator. With six Grammy nominations, Fun must be considered a front-runner in this category.



Next on the list is 21-year-old Hunter Hayes, from Louisiana, who broke into country stardom with his half-million-selling, self-titled debut album. His single “Wanted” sold nearly three million copies and topped the country chart. Three years ago, another country act, The Zac Brown Band, took Best New Artist honors, so Hunter stands a fighting chance.

Not long ago, the members of The Lumineers moved away from New York City because they couldn’t make a living. They relocated to Denver, Colorado, recorded a sing-along ditty called “Ho Hey,” and three million downloads later,  earned two Grammy nominations: Best New Artist and Best Americana Album. With the tremendous success of Mumford & Sons, folk-rock is suddenly red hot, which may help this trio get the trophy.

Rounding out the field is Frank Ocean. This young soul singer – whose real name is Christopher Breaux – has become a headline magnet. Last year, he confessed romantic feelings for another man, drawing a largely supportive response from the hip-hop community. Frank has  six nominations, and his high visibility renders him a wild card in this race.



I’m terrible at picking Best New Artist winners, but I’m casting my lot with Fun. Who are you rooting for? Join the comments thread and tells us who you think should win, and why.

The 55th annual Grammy Award ceremony takes place this  Sunday, February 10.



Mumbai Blues

Posted January 31st, 2013 at 8:32 pm (UTC+0)

By Katherine Cole

I’m just back from two and a half weeks touring around India—wish I could have spent twice that long in that wonderful country. I didn’t get to any clubs or concert halls on this trip, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t hear any good music. Breakfast at our hotel in Udaipur featured a santoor serenade each morning. Please note the CDs for sale—some things are universal!

Our mornings in Udaipur began with a santoor serenade. (photo by Katherine Cole)

The santoor is a wooden trapezoid shaped instrument with steel strings. You play it by striking the strings with a pair of curved mallets, traditionally made of walnut. It’s also known as the “hundred stringed lute.”  I recognized the sound of the santoor when I heard it, but this was the first time I’d seen one being played.

And in Mumbai, my friends gave me a preview of next month’s Mahindra Blues Festival. Eight acts including the Los Angeles band Walter Trout and the Radicals  and Robert Randolph and the Family Band are featured this year.

Besides the concerts on February 16th and 17th, the festival will include a blues guitar masterclass by Michael Messer along with some Cajun and Creole food (the cuisine from the home of the blues, the Mississippi delta).

Guitarman Jimmy Thackery  has just been added to the lineup. He’s subbing for Jimmie Vaughan, who’s stuck stateside while recovering from a heart attack.

If you’re wondering what it would be like to see Mr. Vaughan in concert, check out this set recorded for KGSR in Austin, Texas a few years ago.

Get well soon Jimmie!

Host of VOA's Roots and Branches, and world traveler extraordinaire! When I'm not listening to music, I'm probably talking about it or thinking about the next band I'm going to see. Or my next interview! Join me every week for the best in folk, bluegrass and all other forms of American roots music!

Gabriel’s Trumpet

Posted January 29th, 2013 at 8:26 pm (UTC+0)
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By Doug Levine

Meet up-and-coming trumpeter Gabriel Johnson, whose spare, jazzy melodies have drawn comparisons to the legendary Miles Davis.

Gabriel Johnson CD (Sunset Horn LLC)

Johnson was especially drawn to the orchestral collaborations between Miles and arranger Gil Evans.  But, it was another iconic entertainer that helped jump-start his solo career: filmmaker and jazz enthusiast Clint Eastwood.  Johnson recalls making a good first impression at Eastwood’s home in Northern California: “He was real cool and complimentary and he said, ‘You’ve got a great sound.  Do you want to come back tomorrow, I’m working on this movie and I think you could be right for it.’ ”

Johnson agreed to return the next day and he wound up performing the closing theme to Eastwood’s film, “Changeling.”

Changeling Soundtrack, 2008 (Varese Sarabande)

Johnson, 32, discovered jazz while growing up in Salinas, California.  His grandmother encouraged him to listen to Dizzy Gillespie and Freddie Hubbard, and she supported his decision to become a musician.  After graduating from the New England Conservatory in Boston, he returned to California to work with a variety of artists, such as Gladys Knight, Jill Scott, Dave Koz, Lyle Lovett, Andrea Bocelli, and fellow trumpeter Chris Botti who became Gabriel’s close friend and collaborator .

His debut album is comprised mostly of original songs and interludes.  But, he also put his own spin on tunes by Radiohead and Roberta Flack.

He also offers a melancholy take on the time-honored Gershwin standard, “Summertime.”

“That tune in that particular key just had something of a moody quality,” Johnson says. “A lot of people have done it in a really up way or a really happy way, and I always just thought that my horn fits best in like a moodier context.”

For more on Gabriel Johnson, including info about his upcoming tour and new album, go to


Pianist Paul Hofmann and Jazz-Classical Intersection

Posted January 29th, 2013 at 8:05 pm (UTC+0)
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By Diaa Bekheet | Washington, D.C.

Recently, I was listening to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Für Elise, a compelling classical masterpiece — and I lost myself completely in it. I felt relieved from a great deal of stress due to pondering the many issues in the news, such as the “Arab Spring” that has swept through parts of the Middle East – and currently Egypt.


Für Elise had such a powerful effect on me that I put the player on loop so I could keep listening to it over and over again. I played the full 60-minute version and I sat there listening to it for almost the full hour. When the music ended, I was overwhelmed by the realization that classical music and jazz do somehow intersect.

Pianist , composer and educator Paul Hofmann in his home studio (Photo by Kelley Yost)

I’ve written several times about jazz fusion and some of its musicians who blend jazz with pop, rock, and Latin music. But only a few accomplished, contemporary musicians mix jazz and classical.  So, to acquire more knowledge about this fascinating blend, I decided to interview distinguished pianist, composer, and educator Paul Hofmann who, himself,  mixes jazz with classical and has the abilities needed to perform and compose ear-catching music.

Hofmann agrees that the music genres intersect. “Not only do they intersect, but they have been highly connected ever since the start of jazz, that’s for sure,” noted Hofmann, who now serves full-time on the Eastman Community Music School faculty.

Here’s  JazzBeat and a sample of  jazz- classical blend with pianist Paul Hofmann and guitarist Bob Sneider. You will also hear Mike Metheny playing the flugelhorn on the last composition “Flamenco Sketches.”


Hofmann has released an album titled Escapade, on which he collaborated with acclaimed guitarist Bob Sneider.  It showcases 19 well-arranged compositions that will put you quickly in a relaxing listening mode with melodies like “Bird’s-Eye View”, “Manana Time”, “My Funny Valentine”, “New Invention No. 21″, and ” Improvisations on Prelude No. 22, Op. 11 Part IV.”

Paul Hofmann-Bob Sneider due album

Pianist Paul Hofmann and guitarist Bob Sneider joint collaboration: Escapade

Hofmann says he grew up listening to masterpieces by Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, and other classical music legends. His parents were classical keyboardists. “I heard music being practiced in the house,” he explained. “It seemed like a natural thing for me, especially when I heard things like Mozart’s variations of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

Hofmann started composing music before he was a teenager. “I was playing those when I was 12 or so, and I thought, how come Mozart was allowed to make up his own notes and I’m not allowed to make up mine?”

Paul Hofmann began improvising music at a very young age. Maybe that’s why he encourages the young musicians he teaches to also improvise. “We are all able to speak fluently and no one thinks that’s hard at all. It should be the same with music,” Hofmann said. “Of course, all those great classical composers, most of whom were keyboardists because you can replicate the orchestra on a keyboard, they all lived in an era where there were no tape recorders, you know, so the only way for them to leave music for posterity especially was to come up with 20-page written masterpiece manuscripts.”

In 1990, Hofmann recorded his debut CD, When You Dream, a solo piano program of jazz ballads.  It was released a year later as the first offering from MHR Records. The MHR label denotes the three primary elements of Western music: melody, harmony and rhythm.  When You Dream features a number of great melodies, including “Sophisticated Lady,” “I’ll Keep Loving You,” “Melody for Two,” “Remembering the Rain,” “Love Letter,” and “Dusk at Saudi,” the first of three compositions by bebop pioneer Bud Powell – an eerie, dark and provocative work first recorded in 1951, that contains wonderful harmonic ideas, some of which is a reminder of Debussy.

Hofmann played piano for a reception honoring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck about a year before Hepburn passed away in 1993. The event was held at Rochester’s George Eastman House, where he teaches music.  “Two nicer, elegant people cannot be imagined,” Hofmann said of Hepburn and Peck.  “No Hollywood star issues with them at all – just classy people.”

For more on jazz music, listen to VOA’s Jazz America

Diaa Bekheet
Diaa Bekheet has worked for a host of media outlets, including Radio Cairo in English, ETV News, Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa) and the Associated Press. He joined VOA in Feb. 1989 as an International Broadcaster, hosting a variety of popular news and entertainment shows such as Newshour, Radio Ride Across America, Business Week, and Jazz Club USA. He has interviewed a number of Jazz celebrities, including the legendary Dizzy Gillespie, Ramsey Lewis, Wayne Shorter, and George Benson. Diaa is currently an editor for our main English site,

And The Best Rock Album Grammy Goes To…

Posted January 25th, 2013 at 4:21 pm (UTC+0)
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By Ray McDonald

Two weeks from Sunday, the 55th annual Grammy Awards ceremony takes place in Los Angeles. Among the 81 categories will be Best Rock Album, one of just four trophies that will be given for Rock  (the other three awards for the genre are Best Rock Song, Best Rock Performance, and Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance). There used to be a lot more Rock Grammys — including such subcategories as Best Female Rock Vocal Performance and Best Male Rock Vocal Performance. But as other idioms have proliferated, the Grammy folks have had to trim back on some longstanding categories. (At least Rock is doing better than Polka, a genre that no longer has its own award at all.)

This year, five heavy hitters compete for the Best Rock Album title. First in line are the Black Keys, nominated for their seventh album “El Camino.” They’ve already won three Grammys over the years and are nominated this time around for five more, so I consider them early favorites.

Next comes Jack White, famed for his bands The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and The Dead Weather. Jack’s in the running for his debut solo set “Blunderbuss.” Jack’s a nine-time Grammy winner, while “Blunderbuss” is also up for Album Of The Year…as is “El Camino.” It’s a duel between former Alternative favorites who have now achieved mainstream success.



The other three nominees are just as formidable – in fact, each has already taken home a Best Rock Album win. In 2003, Bruce Springsteen won the category with “The Rising.” This year, he runs on the strength of “Wrecking Ball.” Bruce has 20 Grammy wins – one more, and he ties U2 as the rock act with the most victories. Hot on Bruce’s heels comes Coldplay, who took the trophy in 2009 with “Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends.”‘ This year, the English band’s album is the tongue-twisting “Mylo Xyloto,” (pronounced “MY-low ZY-lo-toe”). Last but certainly not least, we have Muse, the English trio whose following in the United States pales next to its international superstardom. Muse brought home the trophy in 2011 with “The Resistance,” and this year runs on the strength of “The 2nd Law.”

I’m casting my lot with The Black Keys. Their hipness is unquestioned, while at the same time their music is heard widely on U-S radio and television.  Who gets your vote?





Mitch Woods Takes His “Blues Beyond Borders”

Posted January 17th, 2013 at 9:46 pm (UTC+0)
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By Doug Levine

Who knew swing and boogie-woogie were so popular in Istanbul?  Mitch Woods, who’s been playing piano around the world for decades, knows firsthand that Turkey loves the blues.  In fact, his new CD “Blues Beyond Borders” was recorded live in Istanbul, a concert with so much energy you could almost hear the floor shaking.

Mitch Woods rocks Istanbul (Club 88 Records)

Mitch Woods may not be a household name in the US, but he and his band the Rocket 88’s were treated like royalty during his tour of Turkey in October 2010.  A seasoned traveler, he was taken by surprise at the overwhelming reception.  “It was just such an incredible experience,” he says.  “We went to 20 cities, played 26 shows, a culture that I really didn’t know anything about, and how accepting they were of the music.  I realized this music goes beyond borders — political, geographical and religious.”

Mitch’s new CD (Club 88 Records)

Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1951, Mitch became a fan of swing and blues after hearing records by boogie-woogie piano greats such as Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis.  After a brief stint at the University of Buffalo, he moved to San Francisco in 1970, where he became a mainstay of that city’s blues scene.

It’s a third city, though, that Mitch calls his second home: New Orleans.  “A lot of my music comes out of New Orleans, and I think so much of this great music came out of there because it was such a melting pot: African, African-Americans, Spanish, English, Caribbean, and it all mixed into this gumbo. And blues came out of that.”

“Blues Beyond Borders” comes with a DVD of Mitch’s concert in Istanbul, as well as behind-the-scenes footage of the band’s trip across Turkey.  Here’s a clip from the show, a tune called “Boogie Woogie Bar-B-Q.”



VOA’s music bloggers bring you info about all kinds of music. Katherine Cole will keep you up-to-date on the world of Bluegrass and Americana music while Ray McDonald rocks the Pop charts and artists. Diaa Bekheet  jams with you on Jazz.  Visit us often. Your comments are welcome.



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