Esperanza Spalding is The Next Big Thing in Jazz. You can tell because she is quietly everywhere: playing for the President, on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz, hitting the nighttime talk shows, named one of Oprah’s “Ten Women on the Rise” in 2010. Esperanza Spalding is Oprah big. That’s big.
The circumstances lined up against this happening are considerable: (1) she is a jazz musician; (2) she plays the upright bass; (3) her style is complex and challenging; and (4) she mostly performs original music. Formidable odds.
But the reasons in favor of her crossover success are strong as well: (1) good looks; (2) a positively Marsalis-esque story of youthful success, including a background in both pop and classical music; (3) a feel for making jazz funky and relevant to today’s world without watering it down; and (4) big time talent and drive. After a small but head-turning 2006 debut, Junjo, and a brilliant 2008 album, Esperanza, she was on her way to beating the odds.
2010 brings Spalding’s most ambitious and complex music yet. Chamber Music Society delivers more of what a fan would expect –sinuous singing, a flexible, modern, acoustic jazz trio at the center, Latin rhythms that shift through funk, swing, and Brazilian grooves, but always in service of tuneful soul — while adding some daring new elements as well.
The new recording earns its stripes as “chamber music” by incorporating a string trio (violinist Entcho Todorov, violist Lois Martin, cellist David Eggar) into arrangements for her jazz trio (Leo Genovese on piano and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington), which is joined by percussionist Quintino Cinalli and additional singer Gretchen Parlato. The strings are not mere sugarcoating for standard jazz arrangements, as has so often been the case in past jazz/classical encounters. Rather, Spalding and co-producer Gil Goldstein have crafted arrangements that fuse the counterpoint of the strings and the groove of the jazz group into coherent wholes.
“Chacarera”, for example, sets off a syncopated Latin groove that relies heavily on an active cello part and then incorporates strings into the melody as Spalding deftly scats it. The full trio is also featured against the percussion groove in the song’s deliciously long out-section. “Knowledge of Good and Evil” puts the string trio directly at the center of the rhythm arrangement, pliant and grooving, even as its parts are fully written out. Pizzicato effects are brilliantly arranged, then mimicked by the voices in places. On both of these tunes, the vocals are wordless, furthering the sense that the strings are not taking a back seat to any other element of the music.
The tracks that might more properly be called “songs”, however, do not scrimp on the strings either. “Wild Is the Wind” plays like a very slow tango, with the strings never seeming corny or oversweet, but instead adding a dramatic gravity to Spalding’s words. It’s a truly intense performance, belying any sense that strings should make jazz flabby or cheesy. “Apple Blossom” is a song with a different approach, adding the acoustic guitar and voice of Milton Nascimento to the string trio while omitting the “jazz” instruments entirely. It comes off partly as art song and partly as folk song, a singular success.
Folks who were properly enamored of the soulful elements of Esperanza are excused if they worry that Chamber Music Society might be abandoning the leader’s more pop-oriented side. To be sure, this is a collection that asks a bit more of the listener. But it is not without foot-tapping pleasure. “What a Friend” begins with a slow funk under wordless harmonized vocals. Soon, though, the whole band moves into a grooving double-time that underpins a sung hook, with Fender Rhodes electric piano burbling through the gaps. “Winter Sun” has a tricky time signature, but drummer Carrington attacks the backbeat with incisive funk, drawing your ear whether it wants to be drawn or not.
Whatever its title may be, Chamber Music Society never apes classical composition, nor does it try to get the string trio to “play jazz”. Rather, Spalding allows her hybrid group to retain its own identity throughout: alternately fluid and jagged, carefully arranged but never stiff in rhythmic feel. “Short and Sweet” features both brilliant trio improvising and a lovely string arrangement; neither seems like the “real” part of the song, but they coexist with genuine grace.
The weirdest/coolest song here is surely “Inutil Paisagem”, a quick bossa arrangement that mainly consists of the two voices and the leader’s acoustic bass, bobbing and weaving like three buoys in the harbor on a windy day. “Really Very Small” is the album’s most upbeat and irresistible song, however, with a percolating bassline that integrates brilliantly with strings and wordless vocals, putting all of the project’s elements into daring alignment.
Chamber Music Society, then, is a triumph. Spalding has not merely repeated her previous success, but neither has she lurched into wholly new waters. Rather, she seems to be expanding her area of comfort and interest, challenging listeners to follow rather then giving them whatever they may have heard on Oprah or Letterman. Spalding’s music continues to be jazz that almost anyone could enjoy, but it never lowers itself to mere familiarity. It deserves the audience it has been getting — and this latest project is, if anything, a dodge slightly away from the conventional.
Next spring, however, Spalding will release Radio Music Society, which promises to combine “funk, hip hop and rock elements fused into songs that are free from genre”. Esperanza Spalding, let there be no doubt, has plans for grabbing a larger audience. To which I say, let’s hear it. This is a musician following her own muse, but also aware that her charm, presence, and talent have the ability to connect.
One way or another, listeners are hungry for just this kind of real communication. Violas don’t scare them off if the music feels good. And, once again, Esperanza Spalding is making everything feel terrific.