Neil Tesser accepting his Grammy
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  • Neil Tesser accepting his Grammy

The applause that broke out as Neil Tesser accepted his Grammy Award puzzled me a little—and, as he told me later, surprised Tesser as well. He was taking the occasion to say a few words on behalf of the category he won in—album liner notes—and if the words rang, they also sounded self-evident.

“Most people don’t even know there’s a liner notes Grammy,” Tesser said from the stage of the Nokia Theatre in LA. “A number of people when the nominations came out heard about me getting a nomination and they wrote and they said, ‘Hey, that’s great. Congratulations. What for?’ Especially people who have heard me play saxophone. So they were confused. The fact is that 50 years ago—1964—the Recording Academy did institute a Grammy for liner notes. So this is the 50th anniversary of this particular category. For anybody who’s over the age of 35, liner notes have been so important—they’ve provided insight, and commentary, and biography—”

And at this recitation of the fairly obvious virtues of liner notes, the audience gave it up to Tesser. “So many of us learned so much of what we first learned about music from well-written liner notes,” he went on, “and everybody who’s over the age of 35, there’s a couple of key phrases that they’ll never forget that they read on their first Duke Ellington album, their first Miles Davis album, that stuck in their mind forever. So when I say those hallowed words, ‘I’d like to thank the academy,’ it’s not just for this award. It’s for keeping this category in the Grammys all this time. So thank you for that.” He left the stage to another burst of applause.

Tesser’s remarks clearly pushed a button. During an exchange of e-mail followed by a conversation, I asked him what button that was.

“It seems a lot of people remember reading these back-of-the-disc essays and learning from them,” he replied, “and that they miss the fact that music downloads and streaming, which are the preferred methods of consuming music these days, contain no information about the songs or albums—not even the personnel or recording statistics. I was simply planning to remind people that these essays have often been important and can continue to be so; I had no inkling that my comments would strike a chord with so many in the audience, and later, online [primarily Facebook].”

Grammy categories come and go. A few years ago the Recording Academy dropped about 20 percent of its awards (best polka album was one)—”a move that had my full support, by the way,” Tesser, a Recording Academy member, told me. But no one’s been lobbying to eliminate liner notes. If there’s a threat, it’s existential but distant. “It does stand to reason,” he went on, “that, if more and more music is released without liner notes, the category could come to be seen as an archaic remnant. But I don’t think that’s imminent.”

It turned out that I was more worried than he was. To me, liner notes are the fiercely worded exegesis on the back of an LP jacket, closely perused by college freshmen who have never heard the music before or have any idea how to listen to it, but know they damn well better find out if they expect to graduate as men of the world or—more to the point—get dates as sophomores. The transition to CDs in tiny cases deprived liner notes of a perfect showcase, and the further transition from CDs to iTunes made albums obsolete and denied liner notes any forum at all.

Tesser does not entirely agree. “I think it’s actually been upgraded as a literary form over the years,” he told me, in response to my suggestion that the notes are “a degraded literary form.” “For every pre-1970 album I have with cogent, insightful, educational liner notes, I can find another essay that’s pure bullshit, filled with unwarranted accolades, badly written by a DJ with no writerly touches. But starting in the 1970s, as reissues have proliferated—and as the multidisc historical collection has become popular—they’ve been accompanied by thoughtful analysis and often some heavy historical research, raising the quality a great deal.

“You need to revisit the idea that, because liner notes now come in booklets, they must be shorter; in fact we can often write considerably longer essays for CDs, since the booklets can grow to as many pages as the budget allows. . . . But you’re right about downloads, which was the basis for my ‘over-35’ remark. It needn’t be this way. Attaching a text file with liner notes to a music download would take virtually no space. . . .The Recording Academy has an initiative that is pushing for this to happen with all downloads.”

Tesser is a longtime Reader jazz critic who wrote the Playboy Guide to Jazz, has hosted jazz shows on WBEZ and on WSBC and WCFJ, and as a member of the Recording Academy is a former vice chair of the board of trustees—”which was crazy for a writer to have that position,” he said; “no writer had that before.” In the late 70s and early 80s Tesser doubled as the Reader‘s Hot Type columnist. In that space he introduced the coveted BAT award, which he’d give each spring to the local baseball writer who least embarrassed himself trying to predict the previous year’s pennant races and which I, on taking over the BAT in the post-Tesser Hot Type era, exploited as an annual opportunity to favorably contrast my generosity of spirit with Tesser’s peevish contempt for human folly.

At the Grammy Awards, Tesser looked like a million bucks—black suit, dark purple shirt, lavender tie. He knew what he wanted to say and said it well. He gave shout-outs where genuinely due—to his girlfriend, Jeanne Fujimoto, and to Concord Music Group producer Nick Phillips—but didn’t try his audience’s patience with gratitude. I’d score his appearance as Aplomb 43, Bathos 8.

This was Tesser’s second Grammy nomination. His first was for his liner notes written for a Stan Getz five-LP set. In his career, he’s written notes close to 350 albums.

He won for his 2,000-word essay for Concord’s remastered and expanded reissue of John Coltrane’s Afro Blue Impressions, which was originally released as a double LP in 1977 but was recorded live during a European tour in 1963. The music finds Coltrane in a period of transition, Tesser writes, his music “free of harmonic constraints, often thrilling in its harmonic sweep and its incantatory power, and refusing to conform to the clock. (The performance of a single tune could run 25 to 30 minutes.) . . . These tracks brim with the wonder and the power of discovery.”

Tesser defeated five other finalists for his Grammy, one of 82 given out in two sessions January 26—an afternoon program at the Nokio that was streamed live (Tesser shows up a little under 31 minutes in), and an evening session at the Staples Center across the street that was nationally telecast. “Are these [notes] better than other stuff I’ve written?” Tesser wondered rhetorically. “I don’t know. They’re good—but it’s all so fluky.” But not all that fluky—he thinks the process is pretty good. The liner notes finalists were chosen by a committee of writers, and although everyone in the academy could vote on any of the 82 awards—under the rules they were permitted to vote on the top four awards and then up to only 20 more. Which means, Tesser believes, that most members vote as he does—picking out only the musical genres they actually know something about. “If I vote in ten of my 20 categories, that’s a lot,” said Tesser.

His cynicism about baseball writers doesn’t extend to everyone else.