This review ran in the KC Free Press a few months ago. I hit refresh when Ms. Spalding won the Grammy for Best New Artist and everyone started asking "who's Esperanza Spalding?"
This is who ...
Esperanza Spalding – Chamber Music Society (Heads Up)
“An accomplished, fully realized vision from a special young artist”
It sounds like hyperbole, but I’ll say it anyway; Esperanza Spalding is a special, perhaps a once in a generation, talent. A musical prodigy from a rough neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, Spalding has earned the attention of jazz mentors like Pat Metheny and Gary Burton and the respect of her peers. Her new release Chamber Music Society combines string quartet arrangements with jazz piano trio improvisations, Spalding anchoring both ensembles with her agile bass work. Her musicality on the upright bass reminds me of the great Ron Carter. There’s something of George Duvivier in her touch and her compositional approach to the instrument, as well. Spalding’s music blends jazz, classical and Brazilian elements in a personal, seamless and beautiful way.
Her musicianship alone would make her a formidable new figure in jazz, but Spalding is also an impressive singer. She has Ella’s articulation, and a timbre recalling the gossamer soprano of Blossom Dearie. Her lyrics are poetic and her “covers” (including a poem by William Blake, “I am the Fly,” Dimitri Tomkin’s “Wild is the Wind,” and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s ‘Inutil Paisagem”) are inspired - integrating beautifully with Spalding’s own works. Her themes are elemental, embracing a feminine (and feminist) perspective, but bypassing earth Mother clichés. “Apple Blossom” is a lovely evocation of the life cycle - of loss and rebirth sung as a duet with one of Spaulding’s inspirations, Milton Nascimento. On several songs Spalding sticks to scat singing and in such a purely expressive idiom her real identity and charm as a singer is clearer still.
Attempts to combine chamber string arrangements with the improvisatory basis of jazz musicianship have produced mixed results. Early versions of such fusion like Gunther Schulller’s “Third Stream Music” often sounded academic - well intentioned, but stiff. Spalding’ s music brings out the best in both. While less improvised, it even has a soul stirring sweetness that evokes Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. Her pianist Leo Genovese, while very much a singular talent, can recall Mc Coy Tyner one moment, Herbie Hancock or Horace Silver the next. Drummer Teri Lyne Carrington, a veteran of several Hancock ensembles, is an unusually sensitive drummer, approaching the kit compositionally, not unlike Jack DeJohnette. Sometimes her sound reminds me of Connie Kay (Modern Jazz Quartet … and drummer on Van Morrison’s’ Tupelo Honey).
Gil Goldstein, who has worked with the likes of Gil Evans and Pat Martino, co-arranges the strings with Spalding. Together they’ve fashioned parts for cello, viola and violin that complement and converse with Spalding and her jazz trio.
Do find the opportunity to experience Chamber Music Society. Spalding’s music has a generous spirit that combines civilized grace and the sheer release of great jazz improvisation.