Best Contemporary Instrumental Album Is The Most Fascinating Grammy Category You’ve Never Heard Of

In 2007, rock guitar luminary Peter Frampton accepted his first Grammy Award, though footage of his speech is nowhere to be found. Thirty years after the octo-platinum album Frampton Comes Alive! lost for Album Of The Year (to Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life; fair enough), he finally took the stage as a victor, statuette in hand, uncharacteristically wearing a suit and tie to honor his late father. The Recording Academy finally recognized the 1976 live album this year, inducting it into the Grammy Hall Of Fame.

But in 2007, it was Frampton’s Fingerprints that won for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album, a category that more often goes overlooked, unbroadcast, deemed unimportant in the cultural zeitgeist. But year after year, the almost laughably generic category continues to shine a much-needed light on innovative musicians and producers who are too rarely given their due in the arc of canonized music history.

The Best Contemporary Instrumental Album award was quietly introduced at the 43rd Annual Grammy Awards in 2001, an event largely remembered for protests against the nomination of Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP. The nominees in the first year of the award, then named “Best Pop Instrumental Album,” only underscored the category’s perpetual vagueness: there was a nod to jazz saxophonist and longtime Whitney Houston collaborator Kirk Whalum, as well as a nomination for Kenny G’s second holiday album, Faith. The addition of Blue Man Group’s debut record Audio and William Orbit’s ambient electronic record Pieces In A Modern Style only added to the category’s grab-bag nature. The award that year went to Joe Jackson, a choice that, like Frampton’s win six years later, felt like vindication for an artist who had been previously nominated four times and was arguably past his prime. The Recording Academy seemed to recognize that Jackson couldn’t go toe to toe with Eminem; the quieter victory of his award seemed instead like a knowing concession, an overdue honor.

This year, the category includes a somewhat surprising number of first-time nominees. For an award ceremony that can often feel repetitive and rigged from the start, with the same four or five wildly popular artists sweeping the most anticipated categories, this year’s slate for the Contemporary Instrumental award is refreshingly discrete; no artists nominated in this category are nominated in any other. Some are relatively unknown outside of experimental and jazz circles; others follow in the legacy of studio musicians who have taken home the award in this category after being relegated to liner notes for years. In a year that desperately needs a shakeup from the Eilish encroachment, it’s a category worth examining.

Perhaps the most recognizable name on the list of nominees is Rodrigo y Gabriela; after all, the Mexican classical guitar duo has already performed at the White House and even, in an ironic twist, played songs from their 2014 record at the Grammy Museum. But like many artists who have since been nominated for the Contemporary Instrumental category, Rodrigo Sánchez and Gabriela Quintero evaded critical recognition throughout their two-decade career because their music defied easy categorization. They began as a heavy metal outfit in Mexico City before moving to Dublin to busk on the street with cover songs, going on to release records that melded originals with their early metal influences. Despite the couple’s growing popularity, both in Ireland and abroad, it has been frustratingly difficult to pin down a band with influences ranging from flamenco to Led Zeppelin; their first nomination this year, on an album that includes a beautiful cover of Pink Floyd’s “Echoes,” already feels like a victory won on their own terms.

First-time nominees Lettuce, the Boston-based funk collective that started out of the Berklee College of Music in the early nineties, might at first blush seem like an anachronistic relic. Their songs are molded out of prolonged jam sessions that get passed around taper sites, with names like “Schmink Dabby” and fan covers recorded in cannabis greenhouses named after the Grateful Dead. But like many of their fellow nominees this year, the band’s members have also cut their teeth as session and touring musicians, working with artists like Lady Gaga and Dave Matthews Band while putting out new records as a collective almost every year. The nomination seems as much about their 2019 record as their legacy on contemporary American jam bands.

Mark Guiliana’s Beat Music! Beat Music! Beat Music! is also a collective effort, a culmination of his conceptual approach to drumming through his Beat Music collective. The record is a mix of heady dub, skittish acoustics, and locomotive synthesizers, a mix that seems purposefully eclectic as a means of displaying the range of his drumming. Though the record was hardly covered outside of jazz circles and Discogs lists, its mix of electronic sampling and organic drumming is a wonderfully weird example of his ethos.

But the two most exciting nominees both hail from a more traditional jazz tradition, at least at first blush. Theo Croker, a trumpeter with studio experience for musicians like J. Cole, Common, and Ari Lennox, received his first nomination this year for his record Star People Nation. The grandson of legendary jazz bandleader Doc Cheatham, Croker’s latest record honors not only the bop and post-bop jazz movements of the twentieth century, but also features reggae and hip-hop fusions. His first nomination signals a throughline to jazz’s past as much as its continuous evolution.

Fellow trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, the nephew of jazz saxophonist Donald Harrison, can similarly claim familial roots in jazz. But Scott is also arguably the most decorated nominee on the slate, having received two previous Grammy nominations. Most recently, he received a nomination last year for the final album in his “Centennial” trilogy, The Emancipation Procrastination. This year’s nomination, Ancestral Recall, combines acoustic polyrhythms with programmed drums, creating in the process what he refers to as “stretch music,” referring to the ways adjacent genres can stretch jazz past traditional boundaries.

When Frampton accepted the award for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album in 2007, he seemed to acknowledge its unique vantage point in a competition increasingly dominated by high profile producers and pop svengalis: “Thirty years ago, I got nominated for another record. I didn’t get that one as the pop star but today, I got this one as the musician.” Visionaries still have a home at the Grammys, even if their wins, like much of their work, happens out of view.