When Esperanza Spalding was named best new artist at the 2011 Grammys, not even the most ardent jazz fan dared believe this would usher in a new era for a marginalized genre long left out of the major award categories.
Still, there was hope. Beyond the pop cultural footprint generated by Spalding's memorable coif, numerous high-profile performances and cover-ready good looks, there were acres of talent.
FOR THE RECORD:
Grammy jazz categories: An article about the Grammy Awards' jazz categories in the Jan. 19 Arts & Books section gave 1930s singer-trumpeter Valaida Snow's last name as Smith.
In addition to top-notch musicianship, Spalding delivered a unique vision of her musical makeup. Offering a sonic portrait of a personality as much as an artist, Spalding side-stepped the "Big Three" vocal touchstones of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan and nodded toward R&B and Brazilian music with her 2010 album, "Chamber Music Society."
Had a new jazz age begun? Not on any charts that Billboard follows. But the echo from Spalding's left-field win can still be heard, and not just in her continued rise.
This year, the jazz vocal category is again home to some of the genre's most talked about artists of the year, Gregory Porter and Cécile McLorin Salvant. The rise of both singers draws a dotted line to Spalding with unique, differing approaches that infuse the genre with yet more life.
Not that the jazz vocal category ever wanted for talent, but its voices had begun to sound familiar. Kurt Elling, Cassandra Wilson and Dianne Reeves are a few of the unimpeachable artists whom voters repeatedly recognized in recent years, while other choices (Diana Krall, Al Jarreau) contributed to an impression that the category remained a beloved but refined corner of the genre that often leaned toward the middle of the road, if not the middle aged.
Besides, one of the most powerful components of jazz is its ability to say something beyond words. Once you get beyond those voices that have shaped the genre, vocals often just get in the way.
But recent years have seen a wealth of fresh vocal talent, including the post-D'Angelo soul-jazz of Porter's Blue Note labelmate José James and one of Spalding's former collaborators, Gretchen Parlato. Even one of the most celebrated new talents in jazz, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, will release an anticipated second album in March with vocals by Becca Stevens and the ever-inventive Theo Bleckmann. In 2014, jazz vocals are cooler than they've been in years.
Although there's no guarantee that Porter's Blue Note debut, "Liquid Spirit," or that McLorin Salvant's "WomanChild" will follow Spalding's lead to victory on Grammy night (and don't dare count out a deserving veteran in Andy Bey), their presence reflects a welcome burst of new energy.
Striking in stylish, white-framed glasses and able to sing in English, French and Spanish, McLorin Salvant mines the recesses of blues and jazz with ebullient takes on the familiar (a rollicking recast of the work song "John Henry") and obscure (a giddy, knowing roller-coaster ride through the astoundingly racist "You Bring Out the Savage in Me," a '30s-era relic from one of her favorite singers, Valaida Smith).
Though McLorin Salvant is just 24, her writing shows equal promise in her album's title track. Recalling the inspired burn of Abbey Lincoln, the song is braced by a stirring turn from rising pianist Aaron Diehl, whose playing — in another shared characteristic for these albums — often holds equal footing with the vocals.
Though something of a phenomenon on the East Coast (she's been all but anointed by Wynton Marsalis, who has taken her on tour with his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra), McLorin Salvant is far from beholden to tradition, given that her roots lie at the outskirts of it. She won the Thelonious Monk Institute's jazz vocal competition in 2010, but her background lies with classical music — she studied at the Darius Milhaud Conservatory in France before being introduced to the jazz vocal canon.
Still, like Porter, McLorin Salvant sets aside familiar jazz vocal moves like scatting while following her ear regardless of anyone's expectations.
A comparitively veteran presence in his 40s, Porter also possesses a distinct visual hook in his trademark hat and balaclava, which frames his face regardless of weather (a sharp but sun-drenched appearance at the Playboy Jazz Festival last year testified to his resolve). Still, it's Porter's charismatic presence that makes the greatest impact.
Possessed with a booming yet nimble baritone (he played football at San Diego State before an injury shifted his focus to music), the L.A.-born, Bakersfield-raised Porter — like McLorin Salvant — has a vibrant expression in his voice that closes the distance between himself and the listener.
Similar to Grammy-winning labelmate Robert Glasper, Porter also blurs genre lines, having earned a nomination in the traditional R&B performance category this year for the sweeping ballad "Hey Laura." Though Porter considers himself a jazz singer, his lush delivery first captured listeners in the same category last year with the almost achingly intimate "Be Good (Lion's Song)," which went viral online.
In Porter's hands, Bill Withers sits comfortably next to Nat King Cole, from the gospel-tinged rave-up of the album's title track to a lush recast of the familiar standard "I Fall in Love Too Easily." The song stands out in an album tilted toward Porter's own compositions, but here it's a reminder of his credentials.
Just as McLorin Salvant nods in a similar direction with "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" (covered by Holiday early in her career), the dip into the canon marks both albums' roots but not their focus. As with the best of jazz, it's the individual behind those familiar notes who takes you somewhere new.