Esperanza Spalding Stays the Jazz Course While Norah Jones Gets Indie

Photo: Sandrine Lee

The two most recent albums by these jazz artists, Esperanza Spalding's Radio Music Society and Norah Jones' Little Broken Hearts, go in different (and good) directions.

Norah Jones

Little Broken Hearts

Label: Blue Note
US Release Date: 2012-05-01
UK Release Date: 2012-04-30

Esperanza Spalding

Radio Music Society

Label: Heads Up
US Release Date: 2012-03-20
UK Release Date: 2012-03-20

Jazz has done so much to resist popularity since the end of the big band era: the squirrel-chase sound of bebop, the steely architecture of Coltrane, the raw honk and squeal of free jazz, the over-academic approach of neo-conservatives. So when a genuinely appealing jazz figure arrives—George Benson, Harry Connick, Jr., Diana Krall, Norah Jones—it’s only a matter of time before they leave jazz behind for real pop popularity.

The last few weeks have debuted mature recordings by the two most pop-worthy jazz phenoms of the last decade. One artist’s arrow aims back to the heart of jazz, while the other sends her into another orbit.

Norah Jones, Little Broken Hearts

This month, Norah Jones released Little Broken Hearts, a mature singer-songwriter type of recording that places her singular and beautiful voice in an indie-pop context. Not that Jones ever claimed to be a pure “jazz musician”, but she attended the esteemed jazz program at North Texas and records for Blue Note Records, the premiere jazz label. With Little Broken Hearts, however, Jones is writing songs with Brian Burton (“Danger Mouse”) and breaks her jazz ties entirely.

And to Jones, who has sold over 40 million records, I say: bravo, friend. Though trained on jazz as a young musician, Jones clearly boasts a pop instinct. Even on her relatively jazzy debut (where she closed with the standard “The Nearness of You”), Jones stretched only two songs (and barely) past the four-minute mark and was etching the air with the kind of compelling, personal singing that has made American pop a global seller. “Don’t Know Why”, her mega-hit, had the gentle acoustic instrumentation of much jazz, but a simple pop rhythm feeling and an impossibly compelling melody might have made it a hit for Jason Mraz or Adele.

Little Broken Hearts is a much, much hipper record than Come Away With Me ever pretended to be, drenched in processed guitar sounds, looped but static grooves, studio production style with the absence of any band feeling, and a different kind of vocal phrasing. A tune like “After the Fall” pulses with synthesizer patches and a syncopated snare sound and is built around Jones’s flat delivery in octave harmony with a male voice. “Travelin’ On”, similarly, puts a laconic Jones vocal over a strummed acoustic guitar (or is it just a digital simulacrum of that?), supplemented by a chilled-out cello line. Both have the cool vibe of something that might have been on the Garden State soundtrack: powerful because of the way their lack of overt passion suggests repressed feeling.

The flip side of that, perhaps, can be heard on tunes like “Out on the Road” and “Happy Pills” which actually have snappy (and actual?) guitar arrangements in known rock idioms but that nevertheless distance themselves from true passion with elements of their arrangements. “Road” uses a set of background vocals that sound like they’re coming from a bathroom down the hall. “Happy Pills” has a hooky lick at the start and throughout that sounds a bit like a kazoo in unison with an electric piano, which then leads into a Jones vocal drenched in chilly reverb.

All this business makes Little Broken Hearts a successful record, chronicling as it does a break-up through a canny and creative remove. Its insistent sonic flatness or (if you prefer), grayness, is intentional. The songs each have a limited palette of textures or harmonies—and the ones used often seem to be used with a certain musical irony, meant to convey the opposite of what they seem to convey.

This, I am suggesting, is a very indie-rock tactic and quite the opposite of what we typically expect from jazz, where the music very much is the meaning of a song, even one with lyrics. Jazz, in most cases, uses its musical ingredients (harmony, complex arrangement, instrumental virtuosity, expressive tone) with an expressive abandon. Which is precisely what we hear on the new disc from Esperanza Spalding, Radio Music Society.

Esperanza Spalding, Radio Music Society

Radio Music Society is the fourth solo album for the singer and bass player Esperanza Spalding, though Spalding recorded with a rock band called Noise for Pretend as teenager. That is, Spalding and Jones are at similar stages in their recording careers.

Like Jones, who plays plenty of piano, Spalding was trained first as a bass player (acoustic and electric) and came to singing less formally. But in the marketplace, she is a singer first. And like Jones, Spalding made a first record (Junjo, 2006) that was closer to convention. The most critical similarity—and then difference—between Jones and Spalding is in the expectation and then execution of their 2012 releases.

Just as Little Broken Hearts was announced in advance as a further departure for Jones from her jazz-pop roots, a record meant very clearly for the non-jazz market, Radio Music Society was announced as Spalding’s attempt to make a commercial record. Understood as the flip-side companion-piece to Chamber Music Society, this new record would jettison the string group and, instead, embrace electric guitar and the sound of some great hooks. Rather than imagining that Spalding would make an indie-rock record like Jones, it was easy to imagine Spalding releasing an impeccably crafted soul album.

And that is almost what she has done. The difference, however, is that Spalding’s latest uses soul music as a form—but one that is essentially transformed by jazz practices. Radio Music Society may have a bunch of ripping hooks, but it's equally rich in saxophone solos, tricky bebop vocal melodies, and complex contrapuntal forms. Spalding, at her core, is a jazz musician rather than a pop player who just happened to get singed to Blue Note. Centrally, Spalding is drawn to virtuosity and technical complexity. She is so clearly a jazz musician that even her most commercial stuff has the swing and swagger of a fine jazz record.

Listen to the third track on Radio Music Society, “Crowned and Kissed”—four-and-a-half minutes of criss-crossing horn parts; trombone improvisation (Jeff Galindo); complexly syncopated patterns created by acoustic piano (Leo, Genovese), Spalding’s electric bass, and Teri Lyne Carrington on drums; a sumptuous set of harmonies that run through a layered vocal arrangement; and a twisting lead vocal melody. The pop it most resembles, of course, is that of Stevie Wonder, but there is also a similarity to the tricky recent records made by Steely Dan: precisely the kind of “mannered”, shot-through-with-jazz pop that flies counter to today’s mopier indie-rock.

Spalding, no surprise, turns to Wonder when she wants to play someone else’s music here. “I Can’t Help It” is a Stevie tune from Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, and it is a consummate pop song, but the first prominent voice we hear on it is not the leader’s, but rather, the tenor saxophone improvising of Joe Lovano, in whose group Spalding has played bass. Lovano’s playing snakes through the whole tune, turning this seductive love song into a real jam. And the tricky rhythm section feel that Spalding insists on with her rubbery and fluid bass playing simply underlines the truth that this version of a hit song would never make it on the radio. Radio Music Society? In name only.

The opener, “Radio Song” (of course), is another case in point. Built around an irresistible chorus (“Now, you can’t help singing along / Even though you’ve never heard it / And keep singing it wrong”) and very hip two-note vocal hook at the start, “Radio Song” well ought to get radio play. Oh, except for the long middle section that starts with a charging brass figure and then sets up Spalding for a super-tricky vocal section that sounds like a “vocalese” break (words set to an instrumentally improvised melody), which is then—of course—followed by a swinging tenor sax solo. Need I add that Spalding tacks on a long, modern-jazz piano solo on the end of “Radio Song” just before the catchy vocal out-break?

So there can’t be much surprise when another tune on Radio Music Society is just straight-up jazz in feel and execution. That would be “Hold On Me”, which features a full big-band horn section playing a lush arrangement, not to mention the header’s acoustic bass and drumming by jazz master Billy Hart. The arrangement sounds for all the world like the kind of classic swing chart that might have accompanied Sarah Vaughan or Dinah Washington in their heyday.

Nor is it a shock that the only other cover tune here is a daring take on saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species”, a beyond-tricky tune from Shorter’s 1985 album Atlantis. This track is pretty much jujitsu-meets-string-theory, as far as being obscure and complicated goes. And if it seems somehow less “jazz” because the arrangement is so carefully scripted, Spalding tosses in an improvised muted trumpet solo in the style of late-period Miles Davis. Jazz, yes, jazz.

* * * * * *

This analysis does not suggest that Norah Jones, shifting away from jazz definitively, is cooler than Esperanza Spalding. Not does it suggest that Spalding, whose core remains that of a freethinking but nevertheless intensely passionate jazz player, is somehow playing with more integrity than Jones.

In fact, both of these records stand as remarkable career highlights for Jones and for Spalding. Each seems to be refining a kind of essence. Jones may have started like a torch singer, but it turns out that she was really always “just” a brilliant pop voice, and one from a generation more likely to be influenced by Radiohead than by Blossom Dearie or Ella Fitzgerald. And Spalding’s debut, featuring the Jimmy Rowles classic “The Peacocks” and Chick Corea’s “Humpty Dumpty” as well as originals that use mainly wordless vocals, was also not a full expression of her musical personality, but it was in many ways her essence: a substantive jazz workout with a delicious sense of appeal.

Today, a generous handful of records into each career, however, Norah Jones and Esperanza Spalding seem like interesting examples of how jazz remains important to American pop music, even if jazz was long ago turned into a kind of art music. The impulses of jazz—to sing or play with interpretive style, to infuse the music of the day with syncopation and freedom, to force each musician to develop an utterly distinctive voice on the basis of personality and skill—still make the best pop more lasting.

This is not to say that jazz musicians make the best pop records, but rather that American popular music still works best when it embodies a taste of its past. And, it’s also true that jazz benefits from how it rubs shoulders with pop. May they forever be bumping into each other.

James Baldwin Matters

There's a reason why Ta-Nehesi Coates is often compared to James Baldwin, and there's a reason why Baldwin's work is so relevant in the age of Black Lives Matter.

Pop Ten
Collapse Expand Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2018 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.