Although the jazz era may be receding in our cultural rearview mirror, jazz bassist, vocalist and songwriter Esperanza Spalding came along last year and won the Grammy for Best New Artist. The fact that Spalding is the first jazz artist to win in that category says more about the myopia of the people who give out awards than it does about Spalding's talent, but she is a genuine artist. Still, you could say that jazz — at this late date — is more a series of tropes designed for what's left of its audience than the living, breathing music it was even 40 years ago. Spalding is very good — maybe better than her admirers realize.
Spalding grew up in Portland, Ore., and took a career path that has led her from playing violin to discovering jazz and R&B, and on to becoming an instructor at Boston's Berklee College of Music. Not quite 30, Spalding won the Grammy on the strength of her 2010 full-length, Chamber Music Society. Earlier this year she released the follow-up, Radio Music Society, and the idea is that Spalding has combined jazz — saxophone and trombone solos and tricky structures — with pop songs.
In this respect, Spalding is like Minnie Riperton, an artist to whom she's often compared. In 1970, when Riperton released her best full-length, Come to My Garden, jazz was as discredited as it is fashionable today. After rock 'n' roll had mined more basic forms of American popular music in the '50s and '60s, mainstream jazz seemed academic, and hung up on self-created problems. The ambitious music Riperton created with producer Charles Stepney attempted to combine jazz with other styles, including bossa nova and serialism — just as Spalding and her producer, hip-hop musician (and member of the influential outfit A Tribe Called Quest) Q-Tip, have done on Radio Music Society.
Spalding's new music is accomplished. The horn arrangements and solos on Radio Music are often acerbic, while the arrangements effortlessly shift time signatures. Spalding swings like a jazz singer — her sense of time is as acute as her pitch. She's an artist of taste, and it's hard to fault a record that features the playing of such jazz performers as tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano and drummer Jack DeJohnette.
What Spalding's music lacks is something like verbal content. All right, she covers Wayne Shorter and Joseph Vitarelli's "Endangered Species," a track from Shorter's 1985 Atlantis full-length. But unfortunately, she writes lyrics: "Stars across the sky / Watch the cavemen fly" is a typical couplet. Her songs are about asserting yourself, loving yourself, and in the Radio Music track "Land of the Free," the unfairness of the United States' criminal-justice process.
She sings well, with nods to Riperton. For all Spalding's skill, one may prefer Riperton in 1970 — Come to My Garden is a record whose experimental impulses strain against the grain of the sort of rock The Beatles had perfected in the '60s. It's as if Stepney and Riperton were making a statement about how a sophisticated, jazz-informed, African-American sensibility could create a negative image of pop, with the horn arrangements, strings and strangely serialist piano parts conspiring with Riperton's virtuoso vocals to create music that is amused and unashamedly overblown.
Spalding lacks a pop songwriter's formal rigor, but her compositions do feature intelligently applied jazz elements. Radio Music Society will likely become a staple item signifying both hipness and upward mobility, and that's as it should be. Maybe Spalding will luck into a hit on the order of Riperton's "Lovin' You," made after Riperton began creating middle-of-the-road records. Wayne Shorter for the masses is a fine idea, but there's always more.
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