Wednesday, May 16, 2012
JAZZ TODAY: Esperanza Spalding Stays the Jazz Course While Norah Jones Gets Indie
The last few weeks have debuted mature recordings by the two most pop-worthy jazz phenoms of the last decade. One artist’s arrow aims back to the heart of jazz, while the other sends her into another orbit.
Both discs are discussed at length in my latest JAZZ TODAY column: Esperanza Spalding Stays the Jazz Course While Norah Jones Gets Indie.
This month, Norah Jones released Little Broken Hearts, a mature singer-songwriter type of recording that places her singular and beautiful voice in an indie-pop context. Not that Jones ever claimed to be a pure “jazz musician”, but she attended the esteemed jazz program at North Texas and records for Blue Note Records, the premiere jazz label. With Little Broken Hearts, however, Jones is writing songs with Brian Burton (“Danger Mouse”) and breaks her jazz ties entirely.
And to Jones, who has sold over 40 million records, I say: bravo, friend. Little Broken Hearts is a much, much hipper record than Come Away With Me ever pretended to be, drenched in processed guitar sounds, looped but static grooves, studio production style with the absence of any band feeling, and a different kind of vocal phrasing. A tune like “After the Fall” pulses with synthesizer patches and a syncopated snare sound and is built around Jones’s flat delivery in octave harmony with a male voice. “Travelin’ On”, similarly, puts a laconic Jones vocal over a strummed acoustic guitar (or is it just a digital simulacrum of that?), supplemented by a chilled-out cello line. Both have the cool vibe of something that might have been on the Garden State soundtrack
Radio Music Society is the fourth solo album for the singer and bass player Esperanza Spalding, though Spalding recorded with a rock band called Noise for Pretend as teenager. That is, Spalding and Jones are at similar stages in their recording careers.
Like Jones, who plays plenty of piano, Spalding was trained first as a bass player (acoustic and electric) and came to singing less formally. But in the marketplace, she is a singer first. And like Jones, Spalding made a first record (Junjo, 2006) that was closer to convention. The most critical similarity—and then difference—between Jones and Spalding is in the expectation and then execution of their 2012 releases.
Just as Little Broken Hearts was announced in advance as a further departure for Jones from her jazz-pop roots, a record meant very clearly for the non-jazz market, Radio Music Society was announced as Spalding’s attempt to make a commercial record. Understood as the flip-side companion-piece to Chamber Music Society, this new record would jettison the string group and, instead, embrace electric guitar and the sound of some great hooks. Rather than imagining that Spalding would make an indie-rock record like Jones, it was easy to imagine Spalding releasing an impeccably crafted soul album.
In fact, both of these records stand as remarkable career highlights for Jones and for Spalding. Each seems to be refining a kind of essence. Jones may have started like a torch singer, but it turns out that she was really always “just” a brilliant pop voice, and one from a generation more likely to be influenced by Radiohead than by Blossom Dearie or Ella Fitzgerald. And Spalding’s debut, featuring the Jimmy Rowles classic “The Peacocks” and Chick Corea’s “Humpty Dumpty” as well as originals that use mainly wordless vocals, was also not a full expression of her musical personality, but it was in many ways her essence: a substantive jazz workout with a delicious sense of appeal.
This is not to say that jazz musicians make the best pop records, but rather that American popular music still works best when it embodies a taste of its past. And, it’s also true that jazz benefits from how it rubs shoulders with pop. May they forever be bumping into each other