January was not a time to listen to holiday music. Eleanor knew this, and she impulsively glanced around the room to make sure no one could hear through her headphones.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas…
The song had been stuck in her head all day at work –– one of those rough repetitions where she knew she just had to listen to the real song once to push the melody out of her system. It was a specific rendition of the carol, the one performed by John Legend on his just-released holiday album, and featuring the guest vocals (and, one presumed, bassline) of Esperanza Spalding.
Make the yuletide gay…from now on, our troubles will be miles…away…
That hesitation before “away” was classic Spalding. Eleanor was very familiar with her body of work. A jazz fan herself, Eleanor had gladly cheered when Spalding won her infamous Best New Artist Grammy in 2011, besting crowd favorites Drake and Justin Bieber. In the years since, the prodigious composer had continued to experiment with her art form, on the fusion album Emily’s D+Evolution and the created-on-livestream album Exposure. Eleanor had followed all of this.
The timbre of Spalding’s vocals was unmistakable on Legend’s album. A warm, almost effortless flow from note into note, with nary of hint of the breath behind it. The only element missing was Esperanza’s natural shifting from English into Spanish, and inevitably into Solfège, that characterized her own albums.
Eleanor paused A Legendary Christmas and jumped back in time to Spalding’s second album –– self-titled Esperanza –– which, to her surprise, would turn eleven years old in 2019. She hadn’t returned to the album in some time, and resolved to remedy that immediately.
Ponta de areia, ponto final…
Da Bahia à Minas, estrada natural…
Wrapped in a silky layer of backing vocals, Spalding’s lyrics seemed to mesh back into the percussion that opened the song, becoming almost indistinguishable from the full sonic palette. As Eleanor continued her own work, the song cushioned her, allowing her to keep her focus solely on the task ahead, and to forget the world around her.
This continued for a minute or so, a breath towards the ember’s of Eleanor’s adoration of Spalding. But work came to an end once the music dipped into the album’s second track, the English-language “I Know You Know.”
You look at me
When you think
I’m not looking
It was something in the use of those “soft K” consonants that kept the lyrics flowing through even as the words grew more complicated and nuanced. Eleanor couldn’t help it; the meaning in the song began to draw her in.
A sleeping giant
You loved before me
Eleanor was, naturally, a parody of herself. That her favorite song on the album was a paean to the reassurance of love-already-formed, rather than the standard pop stases of “desire for love” or “distress over loss of love,” could not have more aptly summed up her views on the matter.
But songs aside –– Eleanor had work to complete. She pushed through, locked her head down, and tried to focus on the planning and PDFs she had sitting on her desktop. But Esperanza had her own plans.
The sparse piano accompaniment of “Fall In” did little to prevent Eleanor from focusing on the poetry of Spalding’s lyrics –– a meditation on the weightlessness of both love and death –– and by the opening strains of “I Adore You,” Eleanor could sense she was due for a break from working at home anyway. Giving herself to the music, she swayed, conducted, and embraced what little background he had that mirrored that of Spalding’s checkerboard identity.
It was sometime around “She Got To You,” a driving track centered around the twin foci of Spalding’s own vocal scat and a riled-up saxophone solo, when Eleanor felt a tap on her shoulder.
Eleanor’s eyes snapped open. Gwen stood in front of her, eyebrows lifted. Behind her, Dania could be seen stifling a chuckle.
“You’ve been convulsing,” Gwen said. “Jazz music?”
“Oh,” Eleanor said. She pulled her headphones off, floating back to the real world. “Sorry. I mean, whatever. I’m into it.”
“I can see,” Gwen said.
“Don’t you use that music to relax?” Dania asked.
Eleanor laughed. “Yeah, usually.”
“Well, it doesn’t look like it’s working,” Dania commented. “Unless you’re not working right now.”
“Oh, no, I am, I…” Eleanor looked back at her screen. The documents had been tucked away behind the window where Spalding was still playing. “Well, I was.”
“I can see.”
“Esperanza Spalding.” Eleanor removed the headphones and let the music spill into the room. “Her second album is eleven years old, so I’m revisiting.”
The barreling strains of “She Got To You” buzzed in the room off Eleanor’s internal speakers, the characteristic bass falling back within the tinny replay.
“Yep, I can see that being difficult to study to,” Dania said.
“Well, not all of her music is like this,” Eleanor said. “Usually the stuff in another language, or the instrumentals, are perfect for studying or working. But the debut is a little of both. It’s sort of everything.”
“She’s always been making fusion art,” Gwen said. “Mixing and matching and combining different forms together. Her cover of ‘Overjoyed‘ from the White House Poetry Jam is excellent, I remember.”
“Oh, that was a good one,” Eleanor said. “A little traditional for her, but it was a major event.”
“Would she be a good artist for studying, really?” Gwen asked.
“I think so,” Eleanor said. Sensing a glance from Dania, she quickly added: “some of the time.”
“That’s the question, isn’t it?” Gwen said. “She’s certainly making statement music in Jazz. It’s not the sort of Michael Bublé, put-this-on-in-the-background music you associate with the genre…”
“Well, maybe you associate it with the genre,” Eleanor added, defensively.
“You sense what I mean, though” Gwen continued. “But it she’s trying to grab your attention, it’s not really the kind of music you can have on in the background.”
“Is it, though?” Dania asked.
“I wouldn’t think so.”
“Maybe if you’re really into Jazz, like Eleanor. But I don’t think that necessarily means that you can’t work while it plays in the background.”
“Well, you can work to basically anything,” Eleanor said. “You can just turn your brain off like that.”
“Let’s say focus my brain, not turn it off,” Dania smirked. “But sure. I can work with music playing.”
“See, I get tripped up by lyrics in music,” Eleanor said. “Spalding has plenty of tracks that are perfect for lo-fi study background. Although, admittedly, all of her best stuff is not that. It’s the songs that demand your attention.”
“Then question:” Dania asked. “Does that make it better music, if you can’t enjoy it passively? If you have to commit totally to listening to just it and not anything else? Like, even Hamilton you can just have on in the background and you still get something out of it.”
“Well, Hamilton still benefits from closer inspection and digging into it’s layers.”
“What doesn’t?” Dania said. “But if you’re telling me that Spalding’s music requires a focus to enjoy, is that a knock against it?”
“No,” Gwen said. “No, what? Why would that be a negative?”
“I don’t know, I just think it’s weird to have music that can’t be in the –– like, could a Starbucks play Esperanza Spalding’s music in their stores?”
“Yeah, they do.” Eleanor was still confused. “Technically, you can play any song passively.”
“I’m not sure about that,” Dania said. “Consider something like Weird Al, or another novelty song. Songs that demand focus. You don’t put Weird Al on in a Starbucks.”
“Well…” Eleanor said.”You could.”
“No, I see what Dania’s saying now,” Gwen said. “Weird Al and other ‘statement’ artists are asking you to listen carefully to lyrics and follow the story. Esperanza Spalding does the same thing –– but on the surface, it doesn’t sound that way, because it’s Jazz.”
“Jazz grabs the attention,” Eleanor said. “I don’t know what’s with your random Jazz-bashing today.”
“I’m not bashing, I’m only recognizing the standards of the form,” Gwen said. “It’s not typically a genre in which you focus on the deep nuances of the words –– or, at least, not a genre where you have to.”
“Well, that’s it, right? I do think she does both.” Eleanor played the next song on the album: “Precious,” a personal favorite. “If you listen to this, and I turn down the volume so you can’t totally hear the lyrics…”
She did so. True to her word, the vocal opening of the track gradually gave way to a laid-back bossa, with Spalding’s vocals lost in the mixture alongside the other pieces of her combo. An additional harmonic vocal further obscured the words themselves.
“Yeah, this I can study to,” Eleanor said. “Ignore the lyrics and it works. But when you actually listen to the lyrics, as the sound mixing implies that you should…”
Eleanor bumped the volume, and Spalding’s poetry grew clearer:
It takes more than pressure
To change rock to diamond
Now all you have is sand
Slipping through your fingers
“And that you have to focus on.”
Dania nodded. “Maybe.”
“Certainly,” Eleanor said. “I already mentioned. Her strength is finding that line between demanding focus and letting the music speak for itself. And this is only her second album, she gets way better over time.”
“She demands more attention over time,” Gwen clarified. “Emily’s D+Evolution is less easy listening than Esperanza.”
“Right, that’s why this is my favorite album,” added Eleanor. “While later albums are more experimental, this one is right in the middle of her process. You can still trace the research and rehearsal in every song.”
“If you focus on it,” Dania clarified.
“Well,” Eleanor said, snapping her headphones back over her ears. “You should.”
But all you got was me
And that’s all that I can be
I’m sorry if it let you down
Image Source: All About Jazz