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.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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