Esperanza Spalding, Arcade Fire, and Why There is a God


Paul Harvey

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. Theodore Parker.

He must have been watching the Grammys last night.

Every time I fall into despair about that "bends towards justice" line, something happens to keep hope alive, and put God back on my mental map again. The last couple of weeks have been such a time -- Egypt, the Packers, Glenn Beck's ratings falling off a cliff -- and ending with an actual victory for musical truth and justice last night at the Grammys: the recognition of Esperanza Spalding for "Best New Artist" (keeping in mind that she's already 26 and has a whole stack of recordings already, she's only "new" since popular music only wakes up and recognizes jazz once every 10-20 years), and Arcade Fire for best record for The Suburbs. Spalding gave a nice lesson in grace (listen and learn, Kanye) in complimenting her competition, notably Justin Bieber, whose angry fans were tweeting in furiously and defacing Spalding's Wikipedia page from their teenage wastelands. Oh well, they'll grow up.

Aside from her own records, I wanted to draw your attention to one new collaboration of Spalding's, with the great veteran saxophonist Joe Lovano: Bird Songs, just out from Blue Note Records, featuring Lovano, Spalding on bass, and an all-star lineup reinterpreting Charlie Parker's tunes. Not surprisingly (to me), Lovano finds a spiritual core to classics such as "Yardbird Suite":

"Yardbird Suite" appears on the album in two distinct versions. First as "Birdyard," a piece that Lovano put together to feature the aulochrome. "I took a phrase from 'Yardbird Suite' and turned it into a kind of whirling dervish of sorts through five different keys and improvised on the aulochrome over that. It would have been incredible to hear Charlie Parker play that instrument and develop ideas within the possibilities of this horn."

The version of "Yardbird Suite" that closes the album is the perfect summation of the spirit of adventure with which Lovano approached this project. "It came to me one day, I heard that melody as a hymn, as a spiritual, and I started to play it just by myself unaccompanied saxophone. And then I heard all these parts, added an interlude, and went into a 6/8 kind of a dance, and it turned out to be a really different exploration on that piece of music."

As for Arcade Fire, has there been a major pop group more concerned with exploring religious themes through their music? Most obviously, at times perhaps laying it on a little too thickly, this came in their last CD Neon Bible, but The Suburbs is full, too, of anxious contemplation of uncovering meaning in dispiriting environments. A thoughtful review, which compares the CD to Springsteen's The River (and also likes it more than the heavier-handed Neon Bible, a conclusion with which I beg to differ as I believe the former is a bit more ambitious and interesting musically), is here. An older interview with Arcade Fire's leader Win Butler, including a discussion of some of his formative religious influences, is here.

Esperanza shows us hope, even in the suburbs.


mhulseth at: February 14, 2011 at 8:51 PM said...

I haven't heard the record that Paul talks about, but I've been listening the Joe Lovano and Us Four record, with Spalding on bass, that is called "Folk Art." Came out last year I believe.

It is exceptionally good, some of the best jazz I've heard in the past few years.

Hard to know if it is a good sign for jazz that it was honored with this Grammy, or a bad omen for Spalding that she is drawn into the Grammy-winning world. This sort of fame did not do much for Norah Jones. But at least it will get her more listeners.

Bleiben at: February 15, 2011 at 9:52 AM said...

Thanks for the heads up about Lovano.

S Brent Plate at: February 15, 2011 at 9:58 AM said...

Paul, Thanks for the post on Spalding/Grammys. Much to praise! FYI, I posted a review of The Suburbs recently:


Paul Harvey at: February 15, 2011 at 8:29 PM said...

Brent: Thanks! My piece on The Suburbs will be up at Religion Dispatches in a day or two I think; it makes some similar points to yours.

Mark: I think there's a big difference between Norah Jones, whose voice is appealing but talent is somewhat limited, versus Spalding, where (I think) the sky is the limit in terms of the versatility of what she can do.

mhulseth at: February 16, 2011 at 11:34 AM said...

No disagreement that Spalding is better now and also more promising. I just don't want to see her go in the direction Jones did (Eliane Elias might be another example, her piano chops are amazing but not all her records seem that great to me) as opposed to the direction she is going with the Lovano crew.

Jones is probably not the best possible example, but that she was on the Grammy show was part of my logic for bringing her up.

David Stowe at: February 17, 2011 at 3:05 PM said...

Somehow East Lansing managed to book Esperanza Spalding for its two-day Summer Solstice Jazz Festival two summers It was the first time I'd seen her perform, and I was in pretty good company having my jaw drop dangerously close to the pavement. Unmistakable genius-level talent. A storm was blowing in; after her set she left the stage and politely sprinted off for cover in her hotel before she could be mobbed by dazzled fans.

Paul Harvey at: February 20, 2011 at 7:34 PM said...

David: Total jealousy here. Haven't seen her live.

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