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Photo by Sandrine Lee

Grammy moments

Music | Awards show offers some pleasant and heartening surprises

Issue: "The rise of localism," March 12, 2011

The 53rd Grammy Awards had their share of surprises, but none were bigger than the trumping of the presumed Best New Artist frontrunner Justin Bieber by Esperanza Spalding.

The surprise did not result from her being unworthy. As anyone who was sent googling by her victory has had no trouble finding out, Spalding has been quite the item to watch on the jazz front for some time now-for so long, in fact, that if the parameters of the category in which her Chamber Music Society won were not somewhat flexible (the winning album need not be a performer's first but merely the one that establishes his "public identity"), she wouldn't have even qualified.

Chamber Music Society is actually Spalding's third album. And there's a lot to like about it. There is, for instance, the omnipresent rigor of her acoustic (i.e., stand-up) bass virtuosity. There is also her knack for arranging her songs' cello, viola, and violin parts so that they shed their traditional classical associations and take on that singular expressive quality that is jazz's raison d'être and, in so doing, mirror the way she often uses her zephyr-wafted voice as an instrument.

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What will arrest most people's attention, however, is the skill with which she stretches and bends her music's internal structure without breaking it. It's unlikely that anything quite like Spalding's liberally reconstructed version of "Wild Is the Wind" was dreamt of in the philosophies of Dimitri Tomkin and Ned Washington when they wrote it for Johnny Mathis in 1957. Or that William Blake ever thought his Songs of Experience poem "The Fly" (which Spalding slightly alters and retitles "Little Fly") would ever earn him a co-composer credit on a Grammy-winning album.

Another heartening Grammy moment transpired with Larry Carlton and Tak Matsumoto's winning of the Best Pop Instrumental Album award for Take Your Pick. But there's even better news for fans of the legendary fusion-lite guitarist: Although it heads in a different stylistic direction, his latest album, Larry Carlton Plays the Sound of Philadelphia (335 Records) already sounds like a contender for next year's awards shows.

The album finds Carlton spending 39 minutes recreating 11 of the 1970s' most immediately recognizable Philly-soul hits as instrumental showcases for his nimble finger picking. (Well, mostly instrumental-background singers occasionally give voice to the choruses, and Bill LaBounty sings and/or recites two songs all the way through.)

Most of the selections, the original melodies and tempos of which Carlton leaves untouched, are obvious ("Could It Be I'm Falling in Love," "I'll Be Around," "If You Don't Know Me by Now"), and "Bad Luck," for those who remember the original, feels somewhat anemic without the late Teddy Pendergrass' impassioned sermonizing.

But the inclusion of "Mama Can't Buy You Love," an underappreciated Thom Bell--produced top-10 hit for Elton John in 1979, is what proves that Carlton really knows the turf. And, as with most of the rest of the album, it can function not only as nostalgic entertainment but also as first-rate karaoke.

If there were a Best Family Album Grammy, the Bee Gees' career­spanning Mythology: The 50th Anniversary Collection (Rhino) would've been in the running.

It's missing some hits (most notably "Nights on Broadway") and devotes all of Disc 4 to the youngest Gibb brother, Andy. But by devoting one disc apiece to songs on which each of the other Brothers Gibb was the featured singer, it also does more than any other Bee Gees compilation to remind folks that there was plenty more to the family than the falsetto-laden disco with which they once glutted Western airwaves.

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