Music Diary Notes: Grammy Awards, Esperanza Spalding, and More … !

Photo courtesy of JAE C. HONG of the Associated Press

The Grammy Awards, like most self-congratulatory industry events across the various media, are an interesting study in how they like to ‘tell a story’ framed by performances, themes, and the awards they give out. There is a mix of artists having major sweeps of categories, some years the awards are spread around, and there is even the occasional ‘surprise’ – which generally means the difference between two similar sounding pop stars from the same label and management team. Make no mistake on my opinion – I believe the ‘Awards’ at the Grammy Awards are as scripted as the rest of the show.

Jazz and the Grammy Awards have an interesting history. When the award show started in the late 1950’s, the pop music had a feel that was very much tied to orchestras, big bands and small group jazz instruments … and so today many folks mistakenly look at stuff like Nat King Cole as jazz. Jazz has always been a sideline genre – these are pop music awards first and foremost. I remember well in the early 1980’s being surprised when trumpeter Wynton Marsalis did a two-part song with classical and jazz ensembles.

I have always viewed the Grammy Awards view on jazz as similar to how the Academy Awards view ‘art films’ – they toss movies like Ghandi some awards so they can feel good about themselves and pretend that what they are participating in is actually an artistic endeavor and not closer to building cars on an assembly line. Again, I think I’ve made my opinion clear on the popular music industry.

So last night at the Grammy Awards the show was supposed to be about ‘the future’ … so naturally they started with a big tribute song to a singer from the 60’s and 70’s! But more on that later …

Last night was supposed to be Justin Beiber’s night … they set him up with a three-song medley that really showcased his skills. And he was supposed to walk away with Best New Artist … only he didn’t.

Instead someone named Esperanza Spalding, who has never once been on America’s Top 40 with Ryan Seacrest either with a hit or as a guest, won the prize. And pretty instantly Twitter and Google erupted in a sea of either ‘who is she’ or just misdirected hate.

Of course, GearDiary readers know who she is, because I heaped praise on her ‘Esperanza Chamber Society’ recording back in October. Here is the entire thing:

Esperanza Spalding – Esperanza Chamber Society

Esperanza Spalding – Esperanza Chamber Society

Summary: I am generally not a fan of vocal jazz … and yet I found myself immediately enjoying everything about this recording! Spalding at 26 is only on her second recording as a leader, but after the huge success of her first record feels very much in control.

She calls it Chamber Music in reference to the historically intimate feeling of chamber music – meant to be played in a room in a house with a very small audience. And that is how every single composition feels. The instrumentation includes Spalding singing and playing bass, with drums, piano, light percussion and a pair of string artists accompanying her. Arrangements are sparse, with seldom more than a few instruments playing at once.

There are a couple of covers here, but mostly these are Spalding’s compositions, showing her strength across singing, playing bass, composing and as producer for this recording. This is one that is destined for a place on loads of ‘top 10’ lists at the end of the year, and truly deserves a spot. Each year I am finding great new young artists like Spalding (and Iyer and Wirtz and Chris Potter and More), and enthusiastically waiting to see what they come up with next!

Choice Track (and why): Knowledge of Good and Evil – wordless vocals used as an instrument along with a superbly powerful composition just hooked me into this and never let me go! There is a subtle undertone that flows and builds before exploding with the full ensemble including the strings playing a strong figure on top. Very satisfying song!

You Might Love This If: This is one that will have appeal across boundaries – it is clearly jazz, but appeals to non-vocal fans like me, to pop fans, and there is something pleasing to just about everyone.

Here is a video of Esperanza Spalding talking about her music including plenty of music:

But there was much more to the evening – I mean, they didn’t have Spalding play except as part of a backing group for a segment highlighting the work the Grammy Awards does promoting music education. (Remember my point from before? Jazz = philanthropy) But there was lots of other stuff worthy of discussion:

  • The opening tribute to Aretha Franklin: while a right-minded tribute to a true pop legend, there were several issues. First off the ‘focus on the future’ was immediately disrupted as Christina Aguilera was the youngest of the crew, and she won ‘Best New Artist’ 11 years ago!
  • Christina Aguilera – there were immediate sighs because she only stumbled and didn’t butcher the whole performance like LAST weekend. But what more astute observers noted was that she revealed that the Super Bowl fiasco wasn’t all about the words … it was an indulgent, melisma-filled ego-maniacal performance that was all about HER (and her quickly nose-diving career after a complete critical / commercial bomb in 2010) rather than Aretha.
  • Beiber – I don’t buy much of his story as anything but good-sounding PR, but neither do I dismiss his talents (I have two middle school sons, and their hatred for all things Beiber runs deep). He did a great medley – his acoustic song was a bit weak, he surely can’t keep up with Usher, but he left Jaden Smith in his vocal dust. Let me say it – Beiber is a decent singer and a solid performer who can actually do a good job in a live setting. Not great in any way, but the kid is just 16 years old … It was a great focus on the future – in a world with Glee showing talent works, I love seeing people who aren’t simply studio artifacts (and yes I realize the irony since every person on Glee is much better as a singer and dancer than Beiber … but also 10 years older)
  • Bruno Mars / B.O.B. / Girl with Kid’n’Play Hair (Janelle Monáe) – now THIS worked as a ‘future’ segment! Bruno Mars reminds me of a late 50’s Johnny Mathis-style crooner, something the producers player up quite a bit. B.O.B. is like a ‘kid friendly’ rapper, but when he tried to sing … not so great. And Janelle Monáe … well, I had never heard of her, and she was pretty dismal. But overall it was a great way to highlight up-and-coming talent.
  • Eminem / Rihanna / Dr. Dre – what the HECK was Rihanna doing / on? She was horrific … and we’ve seen in the past she can actually sing. Eminem was his usual anger/whine self with full-on attitude talking about who-knows-what. The ‘I need a Doctor’ song from Dr. Dre’s upcoming release was much better, with singer Skylar Grey doing a nice backing vocal.
  • Lady Gaga … do her people think that the big spectacle will detract from how blatantly derivative the new song is of Madonna, NIN, and other stuff? Probably. Anyway, Gaga is always good for semi-pseudo-controversy, so this worked in that vein.
  • Muse – my younger son loves these guys, so he was thrilled to see this. Someone pointed out how timely this is with everything happening in Egypt. Either way, it was a nice stage show.
  • Mick Jagger – again, I’ve never made any pretense that in my opinion the Rolling Stones suck in performance. They are one of the worst acts I’ve seen live, and Mick on his own … pretty mediocre.
  • Bob Dylan – he has now fully descended to self-caricature, and the adulation heaped on his performance only shows that the emperor has no clothes.
  • Katy Perry (general) – look, Katy Perry is Johnny Bravo (Brady Bunch reference … look it up). If you needed more proof, look no further than last week’s Glee where Lea Michele showed how much better Firework could sound with a REAL singer. But as my kids say, she really fits the suit …
  • Katy Perry (specific) – it was a bit sappy, but her ballad showing her wedding video was a nice personal touch, probably done in no small part to combat the wide-spread tabloid coverage of marital issues just 3 months in. Teenage Dream worked pretty well – she still can’t sing, can’t dance … but it was decent fun.
  • Jolene by John Mayer / Norah Jones / Keith Urban – I was surprised at how well Urban did the guitar parts … and how Mayer not only lazily strummed but also seemed to be looking constantly to the teleprompter. Norah Jones was her normal boringly sufficient self. I don’t know if the 90% plastic Dolly can still belt it out like she used to … but she couldn’t be more dreary than this.
  • Drake & Rihanna – OK, so apparently Rihanna was sick or something, but rather than just being awful like before she was an awful retread of herself. Drake was totally generic and made loads of mis-steps.
  • Cee-Lo Green & Gwenyth Paltrow – Paltrow’s Glee performance is her highlight of 2010 after the critics slammed her country movie, so why not play it up on this fun song? It worked pretty well … right up until she started aimlessly floundering around on the piano, then the camera thankfully cut the scene down. She can sing well and overall it was solid.
  • Barbra Streisand – singing Evergreen in a way that every new singer should hear: subtle, graceful, and with the attention to the song, not the singer.
  • Jaden Smith – OK, so while he wasn’t featured by himself, it seems that the Smiths have been very strongly thrust into the spotlight by over-aggressive ‘helicopter parents’ Will and Jada. And while Jaden had some dance moves, he is no singer and had no place on that stage last night … except for his famous dad.
  • More Beiber – So apparently ‘Beiber fever’ folks hacked Esperanza Spalding’s Wikipedia site with hate messages of all sorts, which is a sad reflection on the myopic nature of the tween fan-base. I don’t put it back on Beiber – though Usher and the others who are pushing so hard on the kid could perhaps learn something. I only hope Beiber survives the over-hype to actually do something on his own and doesn’t flame out like Leif Garrett and end up as a footnote and recurring member of ‘has-been addicts’ casts everywhere.

Overall it was a fairly ordinary Grammy Awards show – safe performances, mostly predictable results, and a very self-congratulatory tone.

As for the unpredictable moment, let’s take another look at Esperanza Spalding from a NPR recording made just a few weeks ago.

Categories: Music Diary


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