In nearly three years of doing Bollocks!, I think I have documented quite well my disdain for “smooth” jazz (and “soft” rock). But the tragedy of smooth jazz’s popularity is that it has chased me away from that genre of music almost entirely. I’m officially an old fuddy-duddy when it comes to jazz because I harbor the secret, sad belief that all the good jazz has been made and what passes for jazz now is boring crap. I used to mock this attitude when older men had it about rock music (or anything) and my secret shame is that I have the same attitude toward jazz. And if you ever develop this attitude toward anything yourself, seek help: believing that all the good culture happened back in the day is the first sign that you’re pulling up stakes in the present and checking out houses in the overpriced gated community that is the past. You think it’s gonna be safer and quieter and you’ll only realize too late that it is quieter but the noise is life and now you’re just hanging out in a big house wondering what the fuck happened. Your dog has gotten smaller (and louder), your face has gotten frownier, and your beer has gotten lighter. Don’t let this happen to you.
Because I don’t want to turn into some sad, nostalgia-peddling asshole, I’m officially coming back to jazz. I’m accepting recommendations for modern jazz musicians to whom I should be listening and I’m tracking down the recordings of all the disciples of my jazz heroes. And I’m going to start with a recommendation of my own: if you like jazz, you should probably listen to Esperanza Spalding. She plays bass (upright bass, motherfuckers!) and sings; she is the long lost granddaughter of Charles Mingus and Billie Holiday (okay, not really; at least not as far as I know). And she is from Portland.
The first time I heard Esperanza Spalding was on a cold Christmas Eve in Seattle, at my mother-in-law’s house. They’ve got a pretty good jazz radio station in Seattle (it plays some stuff that I abhor, but I heard Coltrane on there, so they clearly have some sense) and we were listening to it when a really lively tune with a downright funky bass line came on. I was stunned. This was new jazz. And it was great. It was a track from Spalding’s 2008 release, Esperanza, and it sent me on a quest to acquire that record as soon as I returned to Los Angeles.
Earlier this year, Spalding released Chamber Music Society, which is probably a little less funky than Esperanza, but it’s every bit as adventurous. As the title might suggest, Spalding does a fair amount of exploration into classical music on the new record, while still maintaining a strong jazz sensibility. She is a truly gifted bass player and, in an age when I thought we were all turning toward keyboards and soprano saxophones, it’s refreshing indeed to hear a skinny, twenty-six-year-old tear it up on the bass. The comparison to Mingus is by no means hyperbole.
Chamber Music Society also finds Spalding using her voice as a solo instrument more – not singing lyrics, but scatting intricate melodies and showing her impressive vocal range without putting on any airs (I’m alluding to the sort of Mariah Carey-ish diva shit you hear all the time now, where people sing a lot of notes in a wide range and you can tell that they just want you to know that they can do it). There are, of course, lyrical songs as well (album opener “Little Fly” is a William Blake poem for which Spalding composed the music), including a really stunning rendition of “Wild is the Wind.” Nina Simone still owns that song, but Esperanza Spalding nails it vocally and her arrangement of the song is dramatic without going over the top (there’s this really sinister bass part that emerges in the last couple minutes and a melodica wanders in and out of the verses and you had better believe that I dig that).
Spalding arranged every song on Chamber Music Society (with some help on string arrangements from Gil Goldstein and vocal arrangements from Gretchen Parlato) and it’s no surprise that, given her skill as a composer, she has an excellent ear for instrumentation. The arrangements on this album are inspired, playful, dense and complicated but they never feel overstuffed. On album highlight “Apple Blossom,” there’s a lot of instrumental stillness on the verses (with the exception of Ricardo Vogt’s softly plucked nylon-stringed guitar) that allows Spalding’s voice (and that of her duet partner, Milton Nascimento) to really shine.
Chamber Music Society does present a contextual problem for me as a listener, especially because Spalding is from Portland. I really love this album, but I also really want to listen to it at night in Portland, in December, when it’s cold and raining like a motherfucker outside; maybe I’ve got a fire going in the fireplace or something. I want to open a bottle of red wine and listen to this album and watch the rain fall. Trouble is, I live in Los Angeles. In an apartment. With no fireplace. The weather forecast for today, December 10, 2010, is 75 fucking degrees. Sunshine. In December. I’m sure there are people out there who would gladly trade places with me, but seventy-degree weather in December gives me something approaching Seasonal Affective Disorder. I’m a child of the northwest and this desert city is drying me out far too much. Obviously, I can still enjoy Esperanza Spalding’s new album here in my Van Nuys apartment, but I know I’d enjoy it more in that idealized Portland scene I’ve just described. Is that weird? I don’t care.
Esperanza Spalding couldn’t cure my Sunny Winter Seasonal Affective Disorder, but she did cure me of my fuddy-duddy-ism with regards to jazz, and for that, I owe her considerable thanks. Chamber Music Society is a lovely record (it even has a funky, upbeat song called “Winter Sun,” which shows that Spalding, who has also spent time in Boston’s frigid winters, probably suffers the opposite of my Los Angeles problem) and it has even put Spalding in the unlikely position of vying with Justin Bieber for a Best New Artist Grammy. The Grammys tend to reward dogshit (I know there are exceptions, so don’t bother pointing them out. It is still safe to say that, more often than not, Grammy-winners suck), so I’m guessing Bieber will win that one. But no matter: the fact is, there is good jazz out there and Esperanza Spalding is making some of it. Feel free to leave your awesome jazz recommendations below.