Extended Play: Esperanza Spalding on Justin Bieber, Jazz Purism, Drone Strikes and Playing With Prince
Esperanza Spalding plays this Friday, Aug. 24, at the Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa. I caught up with her on the phone for this week’s music column, but she clearly had much more of interest, and of eloquence, to say than would fit in the paper. Here’s our interview, below:
I read and loved your profile in the New Yorker, and specifically your respect for and appreciation of jazz. But beyond that, I was interested in your comments about playing with McCoy Tyner, and how it reinforced your beliefs that jazz should not be a dusty museum piece, and more a music that needs to be for the present time. I wondered what McCoy Tyner thought of those comments. Did you ever hear from him about it?
Oh, no, I didn’t. But I honestly doubt he’s too concerned about it either way. We talk about it as a conceptual thing, the art form, and that’s good. It’s good to keep the creative juices flowing, the cerebral aspect of it, and thinking about what it means, and where we’re headed with it, and blah blah blah. But the day-to-day reality of making music is just to do it. I mean, that’s the priority, is to sit down every day and explore it. I think there’s a place for every kind of practitioner of the craft. I really have come more and more to believe that, traveling as much as we get to travel—and even living in New York, seeing how much diversity there is of concepts and philosophies about the music, and having those philosophies boil down to the music that’s actually being made.
You have those folks who are total bebop heads, who really see that as the pinnacle of the music. And then there are people who don’t want to have anything to do with that, and say, “Well, that was the language of back then, and now we live in today. We have to keep cultivating the idiom, and forget about that. That was one strand in the stream of what music is, so let’s keep on evolving and not clinging to that.” And the beautiful thing is, there’s really room for everything.
B.B. King and Buddy Guy aren’t just the best headliners the Russian River Jazz and Blues Festival (Sept. 24-25) has had in years, they’re also an example of the longtime legends who, lucky for us, return to the North Bay perennially. This fall season boasts everyone from jazz survivor Herbie Hancock (Sept. 18, Wells Fargo Center) to indie-rock progenitors the Pixies (Nov. 20, Uptown Theatre), with a little bit of country survivor Wynonna Judd thrown in for good boot-scootin’ measure (Nov. 8, Lincoln Theatre).
When Herbie Hancock was here last, he regaled the crowd with a song he hadn’t played live in 25 years—”Rockit,” the early-turntablist fusion breakdance anthem. Expect similar crossover from jazz guitarist Lee Ritenour (Sept. 17, Napa Valley Opera House) and, to a lesser degree, recent Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding (Oct. 2, Uptown Theatre). Spalding, who has successfully crossed over out of the jazz world with the large help of Starbucks, has got a marvelous hairdo to rival that of Diana Ross, who stops in for a diva show to end all diva shows (Sept. 17, Marin Center). And speaking of glamour, there’s two chances to catch quasi-globetrotting ensemble Pink Martini (Nov. 17, Marin Center; Nov. 19; Grace Pavilion), who continue to receive rave reviews even with the temporary hiatus of lead vocalist China Forbes.
Rock legends abound, with the Last Day Saloon hosting recent box-set grantees UFO (Sept. 15) and Mr. Playin’ It Straight himself, Pat Travers (Oct. 8). Lindsey Buckingham, the poor soul who has been stuck with a not-very-funny SNL skit, plays in Napa (Oct. 25, Uptown Theatre) just before guitar wizard Jeff Beck flies through with three shows (Oct 31, Wells Fargo Center; Nov 1-2, Uptown Theatre). And though they may not be in the Cleveland Hall of Fame, they’re our own legends, like it or not: barf-metal act Skitzo celebrates 30 years of regurgitation this year (Oct. 8, Phoenix Theater).
A strong indie-rock double bill of Band of Horses and Brett Netson brings the bearded out of the woodwork (Sept. 9, Uptown Theater), while Dawes and Blitzen Trapper give a virtual encore a month later (Oct. 7, Mystic Theater). Ryan Adams, whose career has been a rollercoaster to say the least, plays a completely sold-out show (Oct. 15, Uptown Theater), while the almighty Pixies hold the record for quickest ticket sales (Nov. 20, Uptown Theatre)—the Napa stop of their Doolittle Tour was sold out in minutes.
While the grizzled country-music patriarch Merle Haggard returns (Sept. 30, Uptown Theatre), many young-uns swim in his wake. Son Volt’s Jay Farrar glides onto the stage with a voice of velvet (Sept. 9, Mystic Theatre), while Dave Alvin continues his quest to make the bandana cool again—if anyone can do it, it’s him (Sept. 15, Mystic Theatre).
Jackson Browne is all over his solo set these days, with stories and spontaneity and rarely any set list (Nov. 9, Marin Center), while master storyteller Tom Russell comes back for a special intimate evening (Oct. 27, Studio E). The nimble and fleet-fingered Bruce Hornsby continues to provide examples of why he’s among the most sought-after in the business (Sept. 14, Uptown Theatre), and at the Napa Valley Opera House, two artists get up close and personal: Rickie Lee Jones (Nov. 3) and Stephen Stills (Nov. 17).
Blues fans looking forward to the great B. B. King–Buddy Guy teamup can also get down and low over at the Mystic Theatre with J. L. Walker (Sept. 15) and Mark Hummel’s Harmonica Blowout (Oct. 1). And if that doesn’t work, then the hell with it—just flush all cares down the drain and go enjoy the crazy theatrics of “Weird Al” Yankovic (Nov. 7, Wells Fargo Center).
Anyone who watched the Grammys on Sunday night has probably been thinking about fame all week: both the instant fame of people like Justin Beiber, and the slow rise to fame of bands like Arcade Fire. And between the chatter about Mumford & Sons; and “The Song Otherwise Known as ‘Forget You’”; and that idiotic egg and even more idiotic song of Lady Gaga’s, there were two glimmers of what cynical viewers referred to repeatedly around the water cooler the next day as “hope.” Namely, the Grammys awarded to Esperanza Spalding, for Best New Artist, and Arcade Fire, for Album of the Year.
Whether or not Esperanza Spalding’s win over Beiber will signal a true shift away from pop stardom and toward artistry is dubious. But the funny thing about it is what’s usually pretty funny about the Best New Artist category: Esperanza Spalding is nothing new. Nor is she unknown, much as the legions of betrayed Beiber fans want to believe. Spalding’s 2008 album was distributed through Starbucks, and as such was sold, promoted and piped into every outlet of the most ubiquitous worldwide chain since McDonald’s. Locals know her from playing sold-out shows at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival for the last two years, but she’s also been a huge-selling jazz artist worldwide. Lately, she’s sometimes made statements implying a predilection towards playing commercial pop, and chances are this Grammy win will render her next album very, very palatable. But the bottom line: Best New Artist. Spalding fits the description. Beiber? Not a chance.
The Arcade Fire win is a different matter. Within hours of their win, a Tumblr called “Who Is Arcade Fire” popped up, which offers really hilarious catharsis for those who have loved the band since 2004 and who have hated the Grammys for longer. The indignation on display, the utter frustration, the permeating theme that “Nobody Has Ever Heard Of Them“: it’s good for a laugh. The truth, of course, is that Arcade Fire has been destined for worldwide recognition since Pitchfork’s 9.7 review of Funeral in 2004. At that point, Pitchfork had already replaced Rolling Stone or Spin or any other outlet as the go-to for prescient reviews and relevant music news, so the writing was on the wall. Record stores were sold out of the album for three weeks straight.
(For the true nerd, there’s a great little bit by Christgau here about that historic Pitchfork review of Funeral, and the writer who penned it, David Moore. Moore is now into teen bubblegum pop and loves Ashlee Simpson.)
It’s too bad that The Suburbs is the band’s worst album, but that’s how these awards things work. What it means is a whole new generation of music-loving kids are going to be feeling really, really confused, and possibly feel like Arcade Fire are no longer “their” band. I’ve seen Arcade Fire twice since 2005, and one of my favorite things to read in the aftermath this week has been Carles’ take on it at Hipster Runoff, which is trying to be funny but evinces constant traces of real emotional uprising over their new mainstream status. This band meant something to me, he says, dammit, and now this. What now?
All diehard music fans have this moment. Mine came when Green Day signed. I learned swiftly that you can’t own a band—that, in fact, it’s best if the band belongs to the world, messy and superficial and under corporate domination though the world may be. Even though Green Day was no longer on an independent label like Arcade Fire (and yes, their Grammy win is as big a deal for independent labels as everyone is making it out to be), the underground scene that nurtured Green Day still felt a huge sense of ownership in the band. That was a wrong move, or at least a losing one.
Last week I hung out with Mike Dirnt on Steve Jaxon’s show on KSRO. He was up in Santa Rosa do to some interviews for his “other” band, the Frustrators, who play the Phoenix tomorrow. As pointed out in my music column in this week’s Bohemian, the last time Dirnt played the Phoenix with Green Day, right after signing to Warner Bros., there was a group of protesters out front calling themselves the “punk police.”
I wasn’t one of them. Instead, I was hanging around behind the theater with Billie Joe, playing one of Green Day’s new songs I’d taped from the Gilman soundboard back to him on a borrowed guitar. Except I’d written new lyrics for the entire song: “I’m not bein’ punk / I’m just sellin’ out,” I sang to him, to the tune of “Burnout.” He winced. And laughed, sorta, when I finished the song. I was only trying to exaggerate and thus mock the ire of the “punk police”—and later that night, while playing “Burnout” at the Phoenix, he got to the chorus and sang the same lines, about not bein’ punk and just sellin’ out. I knew he still had a sense of humor.
But just like Carles with the Arcade Fire, just like teenagers before him with Death Cab For Cutie, just like a million teenagers and their beloved bands that get huge, one can’t help but get emotional. Aaron Cometbus has produced by far one of the best pieces of rock writing ever with his latest issue of Cometbus, which is a journal of his adventures while touring China with Green Day last year. But moreso, it’s a trip through the complicated feelings one endures while watching something once pure and special and intimate sell thousands of $30 T-shirts in one night to even more thousands of kids in Singapore. There’s laughter, tears, kisses, and an overall sense of reunion—not just between people, but between long-conflicted emotions brought on by the ascension to fame.
As for me, the funny thing is that after letting Green Day go and accepting that they belong to the big wide world all those years ago, hanging out with Mike last week was a reminder that they hadn’t let me go. Mike instantly remembered playing a show I booked for them at Piner High School, and driving around Santa Rosa with me in their van after playing another ridiculous lunchtime show I’d booked at Santa Rosa High School, and the old bands I’d played in, and just about every show they played up here in Santa Rosa. It’s doubtful he remembers much from his third-to-last show on their latest tour of Japan, but there’s something about the early days—of a band, of a relationship, of life itself—that sticks with each and every one of us. I was surprised at first he remembered those times so well, but then again I wasn’t surprised at all: I remember the first few shows I played like they were yesterday.
It might just all come down to the old adage that when you’re least looking for something, it falls in your lap. Esperanza Spalding, Arcade Fire and Green Day weren’t ever looking primarily to be famous, but they were great, and it happened. Meanwhile, Lady Gaga’s obsessed with fame on every level, and might be destined to see her influence on other artists (Minaj, Cee-Lo, etc.) outlive her own artistic relevance. I mean come on. That horrible song? That useless tangent on the organ? “Don’t be a drag, just be a queen”?! Really?