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Hey, look who's been invited to the party

Country and jazz are rarely included in the top categories, but this year, they get the call.

December 07, 2007|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

Since it was instituted in 1995, the blue-ribbon committee that chooses the five finalists for album of the year has served its purpose by admitting such artists as Beck, Radiohead and OutKast to the company previously reserved for the most obvious mainstream bestsellers.

But this spotlight category has never seen anything like the lineup the Recording Academy fielded Thursday, when the expected powerhouses Kanye West and Amy Winehouse and wild card the Foo Fighters were joined by country star Vince Gill and jazz veteran Herbie Hancock, filling the slots that many had anticipated going to high-profile releases by Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney and Akon, to name a few.

Country and jazz are rarely found in the Grammys' penthouse categories. The Dixie Chicks won the best album award last year, but the folk-flavored rock on "Taking the Long Way" had little in common with country music. The tradition-rooted soundtrack from 2001's "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" is the only real country album ever to win the award. The one jazz invasion came in 2000, when Diana Krall's "When I Look in Your Eyes" was nominated.

"I thought it was a typo," Gill, 50, told The Times after the nominations. "When they were announcing album of the year, I thought they were talking best country album, but then when I heard them say Herbie Hancock and the Foo Fighters, I thought, 'I guess I was wrong.'

"It's a big thrill," Gill said. "I'm stunned. I've never even been nominated in any of the main categories."

Keyboardist Hancock's nomination might be even more of a stretch. His entry, "River: The Joni Letters," has sold just 30,000 copies in the U.S., according to SoundScan, most likely the lowest figure by far for an album-of-the-year contender.

But in many ways, these two artists and their 2007 projects were uniquely situated to make this move. They might be new to the top categories, but Gill has won 17 Grammys in the country and gospel fields, and Hancock owns 10, in R&B, jazz, composing and arranging. Both are also highly regarded as artists of daring and integrity who helped bring their genres to a wider audience.

Hancock's album also benefited from its association with another respected artist: It's a tribute to Joni Mitchell and features vocals by the revered singer-songwriter and other prestigious singers, including Leonard Cohen, Norah Jones and Tina Turner.

And Gill's album, "These Days," is regarded as his masterwork, a set of four CDs of all-new material in a variety of subgenres. Like Hancock's album, it also comes with a classy supporting cast -- John Anderson, Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark, Sheryl Crow and someone who could tell him about a surprise nomination, Krall.

The concept of a balanced ticket appears to have prevailed, so welcome to the most varied, lowest-charting album race in memory.

"I feel like that's always been the aim of NARAS and the Grammys -- that diversity, and all music being accepted," Gill said Thursday. "It's really pretty neat when you think about it. Those five artists really are all over the place."

Staff writer Randy Lewis contributed to this report.

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