Howard Dukes: Esperanza Spalding's Grammy nod is "affirming"

Howard DukesIf there is one thing that I learned by watching Esperanza Spalding's career it's that she's going to do things her way. Spalding shook up the music world and managed to enrage a nation of 12 year olds when she won the Best New Artist Grammy Award on Sunday. Everybody thought that Justin Beiber or Drake would win. The fact that the supremely talented bassist and vocalist from Portland won the Grammy in a category long dominated by performers from the rap, R&B, rock and pop worlds is pretty amazing. The fact that the citation came for an album that fuses acoustic jazz with classical music should not be lost on people who believe artists always have to compromise their principles.
Howard DukesIf there is one thing that I learned by watching Esperanza Spalding's career it's that she's going to do things her way. Spalding shook up the music world and managed to enrage a nation of 12 year olds when she won the Best New Artist Grammy Award on Sunday. Everybody thought that Justin Beiber or Drake would win. The fact that the supremely talented bassist and vocalist from Portland won the Grammy in a category long dominated by performers from the rap, R&B, rock and pop worlds is pretty amazing. The fact that the citation came for an album that fuses acoustic jazz with classical music should not be lost on people who believe artists always have to compromise their principles.

Look, if I have any problem with Spalding winning the Best New Artist Grammy it's that technically speaking Spalding is not a new artist. Chamber Music Society is her third studio album, and it was the critical reception of her first two albums, and especially 2008's Esperanza, that caught the attention of critics and fans like President Barack Obama, and probably hipped Grammy voters to Spalding. Esperanza is an album that had the elements that both critics and casual listeners found appealing. Esperanza fused elements of jazz, soul, world music, and hip-hop into a record that both virtuosic and accessible. There had to be some pressure to create a record that had a similar sound.  In addition, the ‘image people' were likely pressuring Spalding to capitalize on her good looks. I can tell you that Spalding's stage presence has a distinct be-bop feel. Spalding doesn't engage in the kind of banter with audiences that many people have come to expect, and when done well can add an element intimacy to a concert (and when done poorly can come off as preachy and self-indulgent).

When I saw Spalding at Notre Dame in October, she walked on stage, sat at a small café table placed on stage, poured the contents of a wine bottle into a glass, took a sip, got up and started playing. People kept waiting for her to introduce the songs or say something, but Spalding just played her music, and played it well. Miles Davis often played with his back turned to the audience. At the time, people thought Davis was cultivating his aloof, mysterious, brooding ‘Prince of Darkness' persona. Davis said he was simply trying to better communicate with his sidemen. Spalding probably has her reasons for not talking to the audience, but that's a risky gambit. However, it might not be as risky as dropping Chamber Music Society as the follow up to Esperanza. CMS is good, but it's nowhere near as accessible as Esperanza. CMS sports a song that is inspired by a 19th Century poem about a fly and one about man who has to bury his pregnant wife. Yet, this is the same artist who stole the show at the BET awards with her tribute to Prince.

That Spalding won a Grammy in a major category where a jazz artist had never scored a victory says something that is very affirming, and an ultimate reward to a talented artist who did it her own way.

By Howard Dukes

 

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