I twittered a couple weeks ago that I had a newfound obsession. And that obsession’s name is Esperanza Spalding. I’m not kidding. I’m obsessed. She is my most exciting musical find of the year.
Esperanza Spalding has come out with her second album in late 2008, self-titled Esperanza on Heads Up records (her first album was titled Junjo, released only in the US in 2006). This Berklee-educated, child musical prodigy, first came on my radar through her association with Emmy-nominated Christian Scott, my 2007 find-of-the-year. I didn’t actively get a chance to explore her sound until this year, but when the very first notes of this latest album touched my ears, I knew I was hooked.
Esperanza Spalding is like the Alicia Keys of the jazz world, but in saying that I might even be discrediting Esperanza a little. Her mixed heritage is extremely evident in her music. Each of her songs draw, in varying degrees, influence from Spanish-Salsa, Blues, Flamenco, R&B, Funk, Bossa Nova, Soul and Jazz. It makes for an intoxicating combination leaving you wanting a few more notes from the last song while simultaneously excited about what the next song will bring.
Esperanza plays double bass and sings lead vocals, which in my opinion is the perfect combination (there is nothing sexier than a hot girl playing funky bass-lines and singing sweet and tantalizing lyrics on top). She sings in interchangeably fluent English and Spanish, and shows the diversity of her bass skills from song to song. Cuerpo Y Alma (the Spanish version of Body and Soul) is Esperanza’s only real jazz standard in this album and is a fantastic entry-point for many mainstream jazz listeners. This and each successive song succinctly shows the breadth of her skills, from her silky vocals, to the mastery of the bass and scatting, to the ‘sounds simple’ but surprisingly complex syncopation.
In addition to Cuerpo Y Alma, I Adore You, Samba Empreludia and Ponta De Areia are all fantastic modern creations fully rooted in the Latin heritage. Anyone into Bossa Nova and interested in hearing the latest iterations of Latin Jazz must pay attention here. Because of these songs, I’ve fallen in love all over again with the magic that is Latin Jazz.
If That’s True, Mela, She Got To You and Love In Time, are delivered as fully-formed, hard-hitting contemporary jazz pieces; no doubt a product of her experiences at Berklee and touring with Joe Lovano. It is in these songs that you can take your time to explore Esperanza’s work on the bass. It is an immense pleasure to hear a maturing bassist, one that consciously considers the double bass as a leading instrument. I think as she continues to produce more songs, we’ll have a chance to hear the bass take more of center stage.
The songs on this album that most excite me are Precious, Fall In, Espera and I Know You Know. Maybe its because I grew up in a predominantly R&B, Funk and Soul environment, but these songs draw off-of and play derivative-to this realm of music. What Esperanza does in these songs I can only describe as exciting, mesmerizing and just cool. I’m a little afraid because if she pushes these types of songs too much, she’ll very quickly build a fan-base that only demands this kind of Nu-Jazz/Neo-Soul. She too easily can own this style of music. I say I’m afraid because I enjoy her other styles too much to see her pay less attention in developing her other styles. Songs like Precious and I Know You Know are so tantalizingly that I can see them entering the top mainstream R&B charts. There is no denying that the way she wraps up jazz in Blues chords and Soul phrasing gets under my skin.
I cannot even begin to comment about her voice. Love it. Love it. She’s already a star as a vocalist, but to be a master bassist as well puts her into the ranks of Brian McKnight, Chet Baker or Stevie Wonder, where you can’t decide whether you like their voice or their instrumental playing better.
Needless to say, I’m hooked. I’m not only a convert; I’m now and forevermore an evangelist for Esperanza Spalding. I wait anxiously for her next release, but until that time comes I’ll be playing Esperanza over and over and over…