Esperanza Spalding: Pop Goes Beauty and the Beast

Esperanza Spalding: Pop Goes Beauty and the Beast

I don’t know if Esperanza Spalding is real. Surely the bassist-singer is real in the sense that I saw her and her badass band play the Wharton Center on Jan. 20th.  And surely she’s the “real deal,” attesting to any avocation of her sizable skills.  And yet, someone seemingly capable of anything cannot be, forgive me, genuinely real.

All bad jokes aside, it’s true that musically she’s got an unbelievable amount to offer (and her looks and personality don’t hurt either).  So like jazz guitarist George Benson in the 1970s, she has great crossover appeal.  But regardless of her being 26-years-young, or the fact that she’s played for the Obama White House and has taught at the prestigious Berklee College of Music since the age of 20 – making her the youngest faculty member in the history of the college – nor that she buoyantly sings in three languages (Portuguese, Spanish and English) and flirts with the music of Stevie Wonder and Wayne Shorter as much as she does with her audience, it could be said that Esperanza Spalding’s talent is almost too pronounced.  This is the only criticism I can give after coming away awestruck from her performance with a quartet that included pianist Leo Genovese, the Brazilian guitarist Riccardo Vogt and John Davis on drums.

They were absolutely superb, and her ebullient charisma was infectious.

Before anyone even played a note, her band mates already seemed to recognize the brilliance they were backing.  Silently they strolled onstage without her. The audience was at first coolly receptive.  Mr. Vogt began to quickly groove on three chords, and the piano and drums fell in line.  Esperanza entered after about a minute of this and sang to the crowd with open arms – “GOOD-EVENING.”  It was indeed a bold entrance, but one that taught us all a lesson – this was her show.  And why not?  If you can’t stop a shooting star, how do you stop a rising one?

The groove that Mr. Vogt had started developed into “I Adore You,” a composition from her 2008 album Esperanza. Essentially a Latin shuffle, the song was so ridiculously funky, with her soaring flute-like voice scatting up, down and around a beat that Mr. Davis began to stop and start at will; it ultimately exemplified her propensity to see what a musical neighborhood of Latin music, jazz-funk fusion and r&b/soul actually resembles. This neighborhood doesn’t yet have a name. Not that Esperanza cares.

Now hybridity can definitely be problematic, especially if it’s being touted as the “next-step” in, or “savior” of a musical genre.  All the same, Esperanza Spalding cooks up something different, something edible and indeed delectable; something with pop music plans.  Songs from Esperanza like “I Know You Know” and “Precious,” if not for their inherently syncopated rhythms, are sophisticated pop songs about love learned and love lost.  The grooves in these songs, and a new one called “Cinnamon Tree,” are ripped right from the fabric of popular music.  They aren’t simple, per se, but they’re laid-back and easy to digest as something other than the often fussy and stuffy jazz. Esperanza wants you to forget that she is a jazz musician. She is fresh. She doesn’t worry about boundaries because, as she told the audience, good music is “just about soul.”

All but one song off Esperanza and all but two songs from the two-hour live set had vocals. On record her voice is flawless, as if she is singing through a crystalline pipe, like on her version of Milton Nascimento’s Brazilian flavored “Ponta De Areia.” Live, she isn’t flawless; she’s fearless, and the difference lets her personality shine like the sun. The constant presence of her bona fide sirens’ call of a voice – high pitched, silvery and seductive –fluently beacons her irresistible personality. It juts out and cries. It simmers but doesn’t simmer down, and it never ever lags. So this is where her crossover appeal lies. She can be the next great bassist if she wants to (her stint with top-notch saxophonist Joe Lovano demonstrates this), but I think she’d rather be listened to as a soul sister able to thwack a bass figure than be revered like any first-rate 26-year-old Ron Carter or Dave Holland acolyte.

Esperanza prefaced her song “Precious” by mentioning that she had great aspirations to write a pop song. A pop song that would be sung by teenyboppers round the world and make her a millionaire from royalties.  A pop song for someone like Jay-Z or Beyoncé. Except her jazz upbringing kept getting in the way of this perfect pop song. For those of us who like their music to have a little bit of finesse, or be a little bit brainy (or dare I say jazzy?), we can be thankful for the verve and virtuosity of Esperanza Spalding.

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The Static Beauty Of Grizzly Bear

The Static Beauty Of Grizzly Bear

On the heels of a two-month early album leak and the bubbly single, “Two Weeks,” Brooklyn indie rock band Grizzly Bear’s latest album, “Veckatimest,” burst into 2009 with an amount of praise comparable only to Animal Collective’s “Merriweather Post Pavillion.” The band played to an anxious Ann Arbor crowd Sept. 26 at the Michigan Theater.

Their previous album, “Yellow House,” was released in 2006. It was complex, stubborn and demanding; simultaneously a relic with a tale to tell and a newfangled toy completely engrossed in itself. Subtly subverting the pastoral music of a sepia-tinged backwoods past, “Yellow House” was a technological breakthrough, an album that could have only sounded like the past because it was made in the present. It is furthermore one of the most beautiful recordings I have heard in a long time.

Grizzly Bear ambled onto the Michigan Theater stage enclosed in a mock forest: large metal crosses hung lights in periodically twinkling glass jars, acting as dancing fireflies for the band’s spacious, open-air music. They then tore into ‘Southern Point,’ the lead track on “Veckatimest,” taking what was on record a knotty shuffle and shaking it laterally. It was off kilter, so close to surrendering to stability that I was positive someone had missed their cue. But no, this was how the band was going to play it live. And, even if they didn’t entirely stabilize, they found common ground to steadily wobble and occasionally soared. I enjoyed the lopsided arrangement tremendously. It felt bizarre and ready for a nosedive that it never actually took.

The rest of the performance of their “Veckatimest” material did not live up to that first song. This is not to say that their rendering of the album was inadequate or unconvincing. On the contrary, it was perfect. For music so insistent on a sort of innovative perfection, the band’s uphill grind through the album was note-for-note. It was flawless.

“Veckatimest” isn’t that much different than “Yellow House.” The haunting folk melodies in principal songwriters Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen’s songs, the psychedelic sonic trickery deployed by bassist/producer Chris Taylor and the wondrous group vocal harmonies are all still in attendance.

But despite my previous love of the band, I’m wondering now if they and the album are worthy of all the massive praise.

The beauty in Grizzly Bear’s music appears at first immanent; it’s practically impossible to escape from. Cascading melodies are stacked on top of each other like a puzzle. Sometimes sunny, sometimes celestial, but always bewitching harmonies are then affixed to the melodies like puzzle pieces. While nothing on “Yellow House” felt really precious or strained, look at those descriptors again. They don’t sound natural at all, and only after repeated listens to “Veckatimest” and a sitting through their Ann Arbor concert did the music become as tired and as a predetermined as a nap two weeks in the future. And their lyrics, even if they sparkled, were just worthless byproducts surrendering to all that was stringently tuneful. It’s in Grizzly Bear’s exacting efforts to be beautiful, or at the very least impressive, that they grow weary and I jaded.

Dubbing the band methodical doesn’t do them or the term justice. How about calling “Veckatimest ‘a brilliantly systematic venture to be brilliant.’ Too convoluted? Regardless, the album’s sizable proclamation of artistic importance requires numerous – all the way through – listens in order to retrieve Grizzly Bear’s gospel; the utter certainty that their faith in craftsmanship and perfectionism, while intellectually astounding, is physically and emotionally unfriendly. They sound like a band that felt obligated to make a masterpiece after an intriguing artistic statement. “Veckatimest” even seems to call attention to itself for doing so; in which case the band unquestionably tried way too hard.

And the concert: one big quasi-experimental, overly ornate, immaculate recreation of their albums (and my god was it as disadvantageously impressive as this sentence). With lofty intellectual objectives lacking any outspoken bodily ambitions, there was no wriggle room. It’s now virtually a prerequisite that each piece of the puzzle be kept relatively stationary so that all their ideas are made monstrously lucid. Live and on record, Grizzly Bear’s musical movement comes from their melodies and tacked on harmonies, not Chris Bear’s drumming; more used as an apostle of the band’s democracy, rather than a participant in it. Bear’s superbly adept drumming doesn’t conjure motion, or even rock the boat. Live, on “Veckatimest” track “Ready, Able” there was an unmistakable boat being rocked, but the spark of musical movement was exclusively gestured forward by shimmering guitars advancing and retreating, and a chorus constructed like a carousel (up and down we oscillate); not the drums, the bearer of the beat. Written in ¾ time, it was the most rhythmically propulsive song of the night, and also the most emblematic of Grizzly Bear’s thorn in my side because it went absolutely nowhere.

A few of the band’s other songs just plain wear out their welcomes in alike musical configuration. The minor key tunes “Little Brother,” “Fine For Now” and “I Live With You” are as impressive as anything Grizzly Bear has done, but they’re all structured in almost exactly the same fashion. (It should be noted that the version of “Little Brother” I am referring to is the live, electric version, and that the “Yellow House” version is much, much different.) Each begins pensively with Rossen’s strumming a darkened, smoky guitar; then enter some lyrics chiming and lifting from his tenor, and then a cacophonous to and fro chorus with gnarled, reverb-drenched guitars riffs restating the melody, only noisier, spelling out c-l-i-m-a-x. Once more, the rhythm in these songs is so overpowered by the blaring to and fro that Bear becomes just an opportunity to make the crescendo louder.

It just cannot be said though that these songs – or any of their songs – are bad in the same evaluative sense that one can say a song on the radio is ‘bad.’ There is too much forethought in every single thing the band attempts.

So then are any of my criticisms really knowing? If I can unequivocally state that quality has found its way into everything the band has produced, what does that mean for my assessment? What does it musically represent to declare Grizzly Bear’s performance amazingly dull? “Veckatimest” will most definitely be on a boatload of year-end best-of lists for all the same reasons I denounce it. Hell, I thought it was the best album of the year for about two weeks! I guess some other questions we need to be asking here is if it’s fair to criticize music for being too beautiful? too formal and inflexible as an assertion of artistic purpose? I say yes if that music is ostentatiously dressed for a wedding. In Ann Arbor, it was mostly the “Veckatimest” and not “Yellow House” tracks that were all dolled up but not prepared to dance. And just like a wedding, Grizzly Bear really is the best day of your life until you remember about tomorrow, and then it’s an indifferent blur. I still don’t know how to quantify that day. It simply left me cold.

Maybe I’m the one who’s too serious.

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Jazz and Hip Hop: You Know, for Kids.

Jazz and Hip Hop: You Know, for Kids.

The Detroit International Jazz Festival has yielded an embarrassment of good music these past few years. It’s become an institution brimming with so much quality and culture that one literally has no real capability to participate in all of it – unless of course you’re Superjazzman. Labor Day weekend in Detroit was veritable proof that jazz is not dying.

And yet the facts tell us that it’s not exactly flourishing either.

Lately, people are examining the health of jazz through strict data. “Can Jazz Be Saved?,” Terry Teachout’s Aug. 9 article for The Wall Street Journal, cited statistics from the National Endowment of the Arts Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. The article aroused much criticism as a downer piece that preached what jazz enthusiasts already knew: jazz is dying because it has become classified and categorized next to classical music as ‘high art.’ And the statistics corroborating his argument unquestionably boil the pot onto which the censure brews.

But how does any of this substantiate a confirmed death? Ideas like quality and jazz innovation vs. jazz classicism are quantified by taste and not statistics. These factors are nowhere near the survey, or the public’s consciousness of jazz’s demise. For every Wayne Shorter Quartet (and I will use them as the embodiment of ‘serious’ jazz), you have a Stefon Harris and Blackout, a Chris Potter Underground, a Dave Douglas and Keystone, a Robert Glasper, a Karriem Riggins Virtuoso Experience. Not substandard music, but music simultaneously progressive and urban, conceptual and elementary; music designed to attract the young.

And honestly, Mr. Shorter’s new music, as exciting, jarring and soul stirring as it is, deserves to be distinguished as high art. Something that cerebral, and at times intensely unsettling, demands to be filed away from any music that may appeal to the masses just for the plain fact that one with unlearned ears may combust upon first listening.

The Wayne Shorter Quartet performing on the third night of The Detroit International Jazz Festival: (from left) Wayne Shorter, John Patitucci, Brian Blade. Danilo Perez not pictured. (photo Nick Fadoir)

The Wayne Shorter Quartet performing on the third night of The Detroit International Jazz Festival: (from left) Wayne Shorter, John Patitucci, Brian Blade. Danilo Perez not pictured. (photo Nick Fadoir)

But again, for every intellectual jazz artist playing with conceptions of atmosphere and space and abstracted group improvisation, there are still those who do keep their imaginative and decidedly dexterous hands and feet strongly planted within the deep realm of popular music.

Teachout likes to blame the artist. I will blame some artists, and the listener. Jazz isn’t dying folks. It’s just evolving.

It’s understandable that the Wayne Shorter Quartet will turn some people off. I’m quite sure that not every listener was as astonished as I was. I’m betting that some were as dumbfounded as I was dumbstruck. It’s just as understandable that many listeners are turned off by the chosen classicism of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his compatriots, the ‘young lions.’ But for those who can only make sense of jazz as high art and/or literal recreations of the past, there is much below the surface.

The night before Wayne Shorter accomplished the ineffable, Karriem Riggins Virtuoso Experience astutely accomplished an alternative. Riggins is a drummer of considerable talents and considerable listening interests. The Detroit native is by trade a jazz drummer, hip-hop producer, and sometime rapper.

The quintet led by Riggins included Detroit heroine and Pontiac native Geri Allen on acoustic and electric piano, Robert Hurst, another Detroit native on acoustic and electric bass, Warren Wolf, an up-and-coming soon to be star on vibraphone, and wild card Pete Rock of influential rap group Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, as the group DJ. Prior to the festival’s start, this group was far and away the most intriguing act. How would they incorporate the DJ into the jazz? How hip would the hip-hop get?

Since the golden age of hip-hop – late 80s to early 90s – everyone and their bebop-loving father has attempted to connect the roots of jazz to the burgeoning tree of hip-hop. The method of jazz rap inclusion went something like this: new urban black music incorporating improvisational elements endeavors to identify with old urban black music incorporating improvisational elements. Initially it was a thankless effort to grant respectability to a new music deemed delinquent.

But A Tribe Called Quest’s 1991 album “The Low End Theory” solidified the movement’s legacy. Incorporating legendary Miles Davis bassist Ron Carter on one track, and songs titles like “Jazz (We’ve Got)” and “Vibes and Stuff,” the album’s eminence exists beyond the supplementary jazz flavor. It stands as one of hip-hop’s greatest albums and a testament to the fortified bond of cultural recognition, musical remembrance, and black ingenuity.

Move in time with me a little bit – let’s bypass some other jazz rap figureheads like Gang Starr, Digable Planets, Common, The Roots – and we arrive in a beguiling postmodern present where all musical genres are being absorbed, converged and combined, disassembled, reassembled, and then disassembled again, until what is left is whatever the listener surmises to be there. Think there is hints of hip-hop rhythm being revealed in that jazz drummer’s skid bounce beat? There probably are. What about electronic elements? Now those are more easily distinguished, just listen for tuneless blips and bleeps and the contorted sounds of acoustic and electric instruments.

And don’t even get me started on the fusing of jazz and rock – sure, Wynton had his lions, but Miles had the entire savanna. And that was back in the 70s. This is the here and now for our music, all of it. So ponder this: jazz, that varnished old relic we picture as either kicking cans in back alleys with good ole classical, shaking hands with the president, or accepting awards on behalf of condescension? It’s right in the thick of this evolution of genre melding.

The aforementioned genre melding force jazz rap, indicates hip-hop fascinated by jazz, in that direction. It should also be noted that jazz rap has thus far been perpetually more popular than its inverse, and not because hip-hop is more popular than jazz, but because hip-hop’s fusing of jazz has always been more effective. Miles Davis, extensively considered one of the most pivotal artists of the 20th century, made a dreadful jazz rap album in 1992 entitled “Doo Bop”. Granted he had already appropriately envisioned this amalgamation of jazz and hip-hop back on 1972’s “On The Corner”, six years before the term hip-hop was even coined. But Miles’ inferior attempt at crossbreeding raises questions for jazz musicians, and for all postmodern artists: who else can synthesize? who else can do it well? and why does it matter?

A contemporary musician like Andrew Bird is the epitome of this musical receptiveness to synthesize. His impartiality actually empowers a manipulation of his various influences (established styles like jazz, swing, folk, pop), whereas by admitting what he’s most partial to, it allows him to somehow produce music that’s totally distinctive and remarkable. Andrew Bird officially sounds like no one else but a non-existent past.

This hypothetical, nonexistent past is the most significant component of today’s popular music. I call it hypothetical because it clearly exists, or existed, but it has been elusively transmogrified by time, place and technology, and what those three things eliminated was a proper tangible past, not one decorated in fanciful glitter. Obviously one doesn’t just recreate the past verbatim unless theft is involved. But as musical history grows thicker, so does the amount of available material worth thieving. One could even be so flippant to say that our entire indie music scene has been demonstrated to sanction skillful shoplifting.

This isn’t an actual problem though, if authenticity is present in the appropriation. And certainly musical thievery cannot just be designated as a crutch of what is perceived to be indie music. What is anything that’s genre hopping, or postmodern, if not independent of something simplified and isolated? Jazz is a supreme example of both sides of that fact – Miles Davis vs. Art Blakey, Dave Douglas vs. Wynton Marsalis, jazz innovation vs. jazz classicism has manifested itself throughout the last century, and there is no reason why it should stop anytime soon.

It is the ubiquitous nature of our web-enabled world that has bequeathed to all those keen on things hip – see ‘hipster’ – and creative, a kind of cultural homogeneity. The genuine truth of our seemingly mechanical inclinations towards music, movies and books contends a fallacy in the implications of popularity and innovation. Nothing is really popular anymore, meaning everything is somewhat popular and numbers reveal no story here. Nothing is really new anymore, meaning what? Nothing is really new anymore since everything is either fused anew or sewn stale. Unless you are the next Radiohead (who for some are cribbing from a multitude of sources), your best bet is to be an adept chef and delightfully combine.

So it is artists like Andrew Bird and Karriem Riggins who keep this evolution of integration interesting and of definite consequence.

In the quintet’s performance, Riggins didn’t so much devise something new from two somethings old as separate the jazz and the hip-hop elements of his own music with strict precision. It was more like genre sailing then hopping – the wind was weak and it was a long trip over to the other side, although it was all occurring in the same water.

The band sans Pete Rock was anything but weak. Bursting through tunes by Herbie Hancock and Gary Bartz, they dynamically performed music in steady motion. With no horns and essentially three percussive instruments, rhythmic diversity was the name of the game. Allen (who is married to another proponent of a jazz hip-hop hybrid, trumpeter Wallace Roney,) proceeded to move up and down the piano, banging atonally at times, and then relocating to a refined unflustered balance as she exchanged musical proposals with Wolf and intensely pushed Riggins into a frenzy. Pete Rock remained practically silent during the jazz tunes, amicably standing next to his turntable and laptop, and only occasionally grazing the vinyl. I’m not positive if it was by design for him to wait until the hip-hop segment to start performing. I would have enjoyed a more active approach to a hip-hop jazz composite instead of the deconstruction that Riggins was attempting.

Yet when it was hip-hop’s turn, Riggins’ quintet didn’t disappoint. Rappers T3 and Elzhi of Slum Village, formally J Dilla’s group before his untimely death in 2006, materialized on stage as special guests. Pete Rock laid down an old Slum Village sample and the group vamped under their clever rhymes. Riggins’ drum set conversed with the two lyricists and the crowd nodded their head in approval. It was a simple yet formidable merging: a band with distinctive chops playing behind two rappers.

  Karriem Riggins Virtuoso getting down with Slum Village: (from left) Warren Wolf, Robert Hurst, T3, Karriem Riggins, Pete Rock, Elzhi. Geri Allen not pictured. (photo Nick Fadoir)

Karriem Riggins Virtuoso getting down with Slum Village: (from left) Warren Wolf, Robert Hurst, T3, Karriem Riggins, Pete Rock, Elzhi. Geri Allen not pictured. (photo Nick Fadoir)

After Slum Village finished a two-song rollick with the band, everyone departed the stage except Rock and Riggins. Directly prior to the two musicians’ sparring match, Riggins asserted the reason for the vacated stage, “Me and Pete are about to get experimental.” This was what I had come to see, to experience. Two musical minds at odds with their realms, foraging for a fresh fusion that appears so straightforward on paper but is in fact complicated by the reality of musical limitations.

Nonetheless, and for my sad ears, those limitations were pronounced. What took place between the drummer and the DJ, was engaging but not enthralling and definitely not anything new. Rock laid out his arsenal of sounds – soul samples with scuffing guitars and heavy bass, booming beats, casual and casually weird sound effects – and Riggins danced in and around them. However the dialogue was simply too one sided; Riggins was the only conversationalist in attendance. It was as if the therapist, Pete Rock, was establishing the groundwork for the patient, Riggins, to explore his ideas and his obstacles upon.

“Me and Pete are about to get experiemental.” – Karriem Riggins: (from left) Karriem Riggins, Pete Rock. (photo Nick Fadoir)

“Me and Pete are about to get experiemental.” – Karriem Riggins: (from left) Karriem Riggins, Pete Rock. (photo Nick Fadoir)

Karriem Riggins’ efforts to differentiate his two musical concerns may not have been my ideal performance, but it might have been opportune for some. Those who saw Pete Rock’s name came for the hip-hop. Those who saw Geri Allen’s name came for the jazz. They obtained both things isolated, but under one umbrella.

So what about those who came to see Pete Rock and the hip-hop? What they received was some hip-hop, but undeniably a healthier dose of jazz music. There is no doubt that this is a good thing. The jazz played was not moderate and gentle, but aggressive, bold, varied and hip – music that’s incompatible with the jazz stereotype.

The contrived restrictions inherent in jazz classicism are, if I can use this old maxim, bad for business. Music is full of possibilities right now: what determines popular music is unclear; what determines indie music is unclear; the determinates of what the youth will be attentive to is unclear; and, of course, what is to be considered jazz music (essentially this entire general conception of genre tagging), is so unclear as to be crystal-clear. Nothing is new these days unless it is the old being revived by the older, like in-house popular culture renovations.

Yet, where jazz more clearly fails is in its visibility, and if it is to continue to be regarded by this anonymous listenership (hip or not, usually youngish) as superior and elegant, where one must be erudite to procure any understanding and enjoyment, it is because visibly prominent artists like Wynton Marsalis, and pundits like Ken Burns and Stanley Crouch, have helped to stringently establish jazz as not grounded enough in mass appeal to genre hop like the rest of popular music – too important to American cultural history to advance and move forward. And then the anonymous listener is blinded by one side, feels alienated and moves on. But there is more to this music than Wynton Marsalis and elitism. No music, or art for that matter, can be suppressed and then branded, especially nowadays.

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