Why Esperanza Spalding Matters (Sorry, Justin Bieber Fanatics--She Does)
[Here at LA Weekly, we're honored to count with the services of LA's Top Jazz Journalist, the inimitable Brick Wahl. We asked Brick to weigh in on the Esperanza Spalding Grammy upset. Brick has been an Esperanza fan from way back, and he was happy to put it all in context for us (and those annoying Bieber people who have for once been trumped by--gasp--truly soulful music).]
So, Esperanza Spalding won the Best New Artist Grammy . And not the Jazz Grammy either, the real Grammy. The big one, at the Staples Center, with all those klieg lights and reporters and Barbra Streisand and after-parties and cocaine. We knew she'd been nominated. Hell, there's always a couple genuine talents nominated. Then they go and give the award to A Taste of Honey or some act that all the square old geezers who vote for the things can actually understand. We stopped paying attention decades ago. But then your editor asks what you think of Esperanza Spaulding winning that Grammy. Uhhhh....well, she deserved it, because she really is that good.
Not that we actually saw her win it. We weren't credentialed, for one thing (the restrictions give us the willies), and we were watching the L.A. Kings humiliate the Philadelphia Flyers in Philly and it never occurred to us that the reason the Kings weren't on home ice was that Esperanza Spalding was getting her Grammy. Then there was an old movie on, and a column to write, plus we went to the Playboy Mansion last week and got sick as a dog with something and with all that the whole ceremony utterly slipped our mind. It happens.
But Esperanza Spalding is cool. She's beautiful, yes, and has the best hair since Angela Davis. She has quite the voice, sweet, kinda earthy, and fans of jazz, funk, rock, groove and all those college kids can each identify with that voice. Dudes dig it, chicks dig it. She plays--get this--a big old stand up bass. She dominates it. She may look the waif but she has no trouble with that thing, either moving it around or making it go where she wants musically.
Every time we've seen her it's been with a trio, a badass trio, too...tough drumming, jamming piano, the real all sinew, no fat kind of trio. The kind that jams. She gives each plenty of solo space, takes plenty of her own, and the jazz numbers are pure jazz, the real thing. Her poppier material--which is what she got that Grammy for, let's be honest--is some sweet nu-soul, sort of. It's soulful, and certainly nu enough, but it has that kind of hip, spare vibe they go so crazy for over on KCRW. Kind of like she'd been discovered by David Byrne. And she sings it all like an angel.
Angel, that's the word. Angelic. That's not a jazz thing. You think Billie Holiday and Anita O'Day and you don't think what little angels they were. You didn't find a lot of angels in the neighborhoods jazz came from. Jazz has always liked its women hard and knowing. That's the standard look, the standard image. You can't be angelic and make it as a vocalist in jazz.
But that's precisely the word that popped into our head sitting backstage at the Playboy Jazz Festival watching Esperanza Spalding deal with the press. She'd just done another great set, the crowd went nuts for her, and her people had bundled her right off the stage to face us. Must have been a hundred reporters. First up was Roy Haynes, though. What is he now, 85? He looked twenty years younger. Played twenty years younger than that. He ran that room, baby, made suckers out of the reporters, we were all laughing our heads off and recording every line, each a gem. A classic performance. Then he split to applause and in came Esperanza.
The salty, hard bitten atmosphere dissipated instantly and it was almost church. We whispered. Reporters were afraid to ask anything for fear they'd bruise her. She looked so sweet, her voice was so sweet, there was so much innocence there we all stopped swearing. We knew it wasn't real, that she couldn't actually be a jazz musician and be that innocent. But on that off, off chance that just maybe it was, we lobbed soft questions and she answered them all, eyes sparkling. She sure looked like the future of something. She was too damn talented to win a Grammy, that we knew. But maybe, just maybe, she was onto something. Something big ... But we're getting into the pop music world now, way out of our league. She's theirs now. Lord have mercy on her.
ps: Just saw a clip of Bob Dylan singing "Maggie's Farm" at the Grammys. Rushing out on stage like that with a scraggly, wheezy mob of acoustic musicians. The producers must have hit the roof. The sonofabitch pulled a reverse Newport on them. You have no idea how much we wish some jazz icon would do the same at the jazz grammys. Just flip off the producers and hurl themselves into something pure jazz crazy. Something that would make everything else look as old and Vegas cheap as Mick Jagger did after Bob Dylan. Something to make people see just how real this music can be ... But we're not betting on it.
(Brick can be reached at email@example.com)