Music Review: Esperanza Spalding

Posted: December 14th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Kev's Music Review | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

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…


Music Review: Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band

Posted: December 12th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Kev's Music Review | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

One of the wonderful new finds in so many months has been Brian Blade’s newest album, Season of Changes.  Admittedly this is the first of Brian’s albums that I’ve had a chance to get my hands on, but the music he and The Fellowship Band produce is exactly what I would expect from him: music that has a candidly contemporary tempo, delving into deep tonal moods and enriched by phrasing that characterizes the definition of today’s jazz.

Brian has been playing with all the major voices that have shaped the current movement in popular contemporary jazz.  I first noticed Brian Blade when he drummed for Joshua Redman in most of Joshua’s recordings, including the influential Momentum and Freedom in the Groove albums starting in the mid nineties.  I then listened intently as he worked with such rising stars as Kurt Rosenwinkel and jazz statesmen such as Kenny Garrett and Wayne Shorter.  It was almost expectant relief when I finally found an album with Brian’s own name on it. (Note: Brian Blade has 3 other previous albums, Brian Blade Fellowship <1998>, Perceptual <2000>, Friendly Travelers <2007>)

True to his heritage and experience, the music found in Season of Changes has a little bit of everyone he’s played with and admired.  The song Return of the Prodigal Son brings John Coltrane into the twenty-first century, whimsically playing with the fantasy of what John Coltrane would sound like if he had continued to live and perform into the present day.  Omni is another such songs that is set squarely from the Trane-era avant-garde/free jazz heritage, however I feel it pays much homage to Kenny Garrett’s work, another contemporary jazz giant.  Most Precious One (Prodigy), Season of Changes, Stoner Hill and Rubylou’s Lullaby stride straight into the best of the more progressive contemporary jazz coming out from today’s young pioneers.  You can hear Brian’s direction in these songs more clearly as he presents to the listener a clear, contemporary tempo and invites the rest of The Fellowship Band to join in the discussion.  It is in these songs that you hear remnants of Brad Mehldau from Jon Cowherd on piano, and where Kurt Rosenwinkel takes the lead on electric guitar, you get a very clear sense that they’ve gone through these motions before, and they know exactly where they want the sound to go.

Support-Instrument Band Leadership and “Foreground Ambient” Music

The one word that continually enters my mind as I listen to Brian Blade’s music is “Ambient”, but not the ambience we associate with ‘ambient jazz’ or ‘elevator music’.  I feel Brian’s music demands the ambience to take the foreground, requiring the listener to be submerged in the music, versus classic ambience that can be left in the background as an afterthought.  This music is made for sitting in your living room with a 5-speaker surround-sound stereo system and turning it up just a little too loud, so you can be enveloped in the layers of sound.

One reason why I believe Brian can make this type of music is because of the structure of The Fellowship Band.  Unlike other groups where the band leader is often the lead instrument, Brian Blade as the drummer leads from behind and sets a language that is then built upon layer-upon-layer by the other musicians. So when the direction shifts, you hear it as an under-swelling of change in the feel and phraseology of music.  This is in high contrast from lead-instrument-band-leader structures, where the shifts in musical direction are nakedly audible.  With Brian leading from behind and deep underneath, the movement of the music feels more subtle and in concert, hence my feeling of foreground-ambience.  Another analogy I have for the difference between lead-instrument and support-instrument leadership is much like front-wheel versus rear-wheel drive.  Front wheel drive has a faster response rate, acceleration rate and is more agile in its moves, but rear-wheel drive has a smoother acceleration and transition, making for a more pleasant ride.

This foreground-ambience I feel is inherent with many support-instrument band-leadership structures.  Brad Mehldau’s leadership on piano or Dave Holland’s leadership on bass are examples that come to mind.

Discussing music organizational structures just indulges the music & leadership junkies in me.  Regardless how you listen to it, Brian Blade and The Fellowship Band has got their equation down right, and will enthrall any jazz listener.  I for one look forward to Brian’s next album.


Kev’s Music Review: Mike Stern

Posted: June 29th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Kev's Music Review | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »


At the end of May I had the chance to fulfill one of my goals.  That goal was to see Mike Stern live in concert.  I had missed him once when he played in Montreal, then missed him again in Toronto and then in New York.  I wasn’t about to miss him a fourth time.  So when I heard back in January that he would be coming through Beijing, I marked it on my calendar and looked forward to it each passing day.

Mike Stern’s newest album,  “Who Let the Cats Out?” was one that got me super excited when it first came out, as it kept the heart of the rock-fusion sound alive, but with this newest album also acknowledging the other advancements in Jazz in recent years.  Funk, NuSoul, Neo-Traditional Jazz, and some Rhythm & Blues are all infused in Mike Stern’s music.  “Who Let the Cats Out?” isn’t really all that new, being released in late 2006.  But Mike Stern’s world tour, much akin to his career, has mastered the meaning of longevity, consistency and authenticity.  His performance in Beijing was much the same.

Mike & Co. came out on stage unceremoniously,  walking straight for their choice of instruments.  He beckons to his mates to begin the first song, and away they go, inviting the audience to join them on their journey.  Mike immediately begins to rock back and forth, consecutively bending each knee like an electric toy trying to run on the spot but with its feet nailed down to the floor. This sight coincides with the swiftest movements ever witnessed coming from human fingers. On his face is the child-like smile one can only have when experiencing innocent joy.  Mike’s band moves at a lighting pace, led by the speed of their leader’s notes, but all with a comfortability and a little hop in their musical step while they revisit some complex harmonics.  They’ve done this before, and it suits them just fine.

To me, Mike Stern is the standard bearer for the conclusion Miles Davis came to from his Rock-Fusion experiment.  Mike Stern, along with his contemporaries like Jim Hall and John McLaughlin have been faithfully keeping with jazz-rock-fusion tradition, but more importantly steering the tradition as it steams forward in the twenty-first century.

The contemporary Jazz world has long been fragmented, producing numerous neo-traditionalists led by geniuses like trumpeter & composer Wynton Marsalis.  In recent years what has been popularized as the ‘new’ sound of contemporary jazz is the electric guitar.  Yet even in this declaration, it is the rounded, melodious sounds defined by Pat Metheny that are really what people think of when they talk about today’s jazz guitar.  Mike Stern’s continued homage to Miles Davis’ fusion vision is almost the antithesis of Pat Metheny’s school of sound.  But in the wonderful world of Jazz, where all sounds are positive, intellectual pillars of influence,  we can see how both Pat Metheny and Mike Stern have jointly spurned on the young guitar leaders of jazz’s future; Matt Stevens, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Julian Lage all have large elements of their music directly attributed to these two very distinct titans of contemporary jazz.

As a side note, isn’t it amazing how both Pat Metheny and Mike Stern (indeed most of the giants of contemp jazz) had their start from Miles Davis? This tells you how supremely important Miles Davis was and is to Jazz heritage.

After meeting Mike Stern in person, and doing a brief interview for our publication, I can safely he is one of the most quirkiest, happy-go-lucky musicians I have ever met.  He has taken the inner-child to a totally new level and kept the joy of performing and the joy of jazz rooted in an unbreakable foundation.