Part of it, for me, is the disparity between Herbie live and Herbie on record. Over the past few years, his live performances and touring bands have been far more interesting and musically rewarding to me than the albums. Compare Gershwin's World, which I really did like, with the BET Jazz DVD shortly following its release. The tunes are blown open, everyone has more room to explore and develop their musical personality. Since 1995's The New Standard, the albums seem to be more about novel ways about framing Herbie's artistry and less about Herbie's artistry itself.
I don't claim to have the answers to these questions. Perhaps the rest of the hivemind, jazzers and no, can weigh in. Pat has already tackled some of these.
- There's a somewhat cynical view of Album of the Year serving as a sort of Lifetime Achievement Award in disguise. Steely Dan's Two Against Nature win in 2001 and Santana's Supernatural sweep in 2000 were deemed to function this way. While what little I've heard of River is alright, it was far from the best album of the year in my estimation. Maybe Kanye West & Amy Winehouse supporters split the vote allowing Herbie to go up the middle. Herbie has been recognized in the past by NARAS; but is crowning Herbie, and having Eldar honour Oscar Peterson, pandering to the great lack of televised jazz over the years?
- Is it fair to compare an artist's current work with their past catalogue? Two Against Nature, as good as it was, was certainly no Aja (which, to my research, never won a Grammy); Supernatural, and Santana's ensuing duets albums, don't hold a candle to Abraxas. Should this factor into how we appreciate and award these records?
- Will Herbie's win lead to more people checking out Herbie's work (or Joni's)? I really want to say yes, but the "who the fuck is Herbie Hancock" comments suggest otherwise. Howard Mandel and his commenters have more here.
- Is there an objective way to determine "best" in these cases? I'm curious how many NARAS voters are musically trained, and how actively involved they are in music? I'm reminded of the famous 1989 Metal fiasco, with Jethro Tull beating Metallica. Patti Austin's Avant Gershwin record won Best Jazz Vocal album (and congrats to Michael Abene, who did the arrangements). Other nominees included Freddy Cole and Kurt Elling. What makes Patti Austin a better jazz vocalist, in the ears of NARAS?