grammy postmortem 2011

esperannza spalding arriving at last night's grammy awards in los angeles.

esperanza spalding arriving at the grammy awards ceremony last night in los angeles. ap photo by chris pizzello.

The moment brought back the memory of when Herbie Hancock skunked Kanye West for Album of the Year at the 2008 Grammy Awards. It was sweet and, quite frankly shocking.

Last night, the Grammys just about trumped that when another jazz artist – this one a young lion unknown to much of the pop mainstream – won Best New Artist. In a field that boasted teen pop star Justin Bieber, charttopping rapper Drake, folk renegades Mumford & Sons and alternative pop newcomers Florence and the Machine, the winner turned out to be jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding.

Admittedly, the Best New Artist category carries a pretty horrid legacy. Let’s not forget that past winners include the Starland Vocal Band. And though Spalding may be a new artist, she has actually cut five albums – three of her own (including the wonderful 2010 soul-jazz gem Chamber Music Society) and two as a member of saxophonist Joe Lovano’s Us Five quintet (including the outstanding 2011 Charlie Parker themed Bird Songs).

But for once, let’s not get distracted by the Grammys’ bewildering and inconsistent nomination process and look the seriously bright side. Honestly, now. A jazz stylist winning Best New Artist? That’s cool. But a bassist taking the award? Even wilder. Add in Spalding’s acceptance speech, which was concise, literate and gracious (qualities generally lacking at the Grammys) and you had the makings of a genuine class act.

Almost as surprising was watching Arcade Fire beat out Lady Gaga, Eminem, Katy Perry and Lady Antebellum for Album of the Year (for The Suburbs).

Singer/frontman Win Butler also cut to the chase, or else simply expressed honest surprise, with the opening of his acceptance speech: “What the hell?”

The band tore through a blinding version of Month of May, complete with cyclists wearing helmet cams whipping around the stage, just prior to winning the award. Then, in a Grammy first, the band was afforded a victory lap by closing the broadcast with, ironically, Ready to Start.

The rest of the night? Surprisingly entertaining in terms of performances, actually. Cee Lo Green sang that ultra-fun pop-soul kiss-off song with the title you can’t say on TV backed by a band of puppets. That was a major blast. But what was the deal with having Gwyneth Paltrow as a duet partner? Or was she a puppet, too.

But Lady Gaga in an egg? The five diva salute to Aretha Franklin (with Christina Aguilera actually remembering the lyrics)? The Justin Bieber/Usher tag team match? No thank you very much.

The geezers had a good night, though. Bob Dylan upheld his unofficial title as folk angel of death by croaking his way though a magnificently ragged Maggie’s Farm in hootenanny fashion with Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers.

And there was Mick Jagger, still a tireless performance fireball, who turned the ceremony’s most maudlin moment – the memorial salute to artists who died over the past year – into a king size celebration honoring soul music giant Solomon Burke by leading a massively brassy Everybody Needs Somebody to Love. The only person in the audience caught on camera not smiling was Eminem. But then it’s his job not to.

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