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…

Kev’s Music Review: Jazzanova

Posted: June 30th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Kev's Music Review | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

May and June were extraordinary months for music in Beijing.  In addition to the 9-Gates Jazz Fest (among others, Mike Stern performed this year), in the following month we were blessed with a very rare performance by Jazzanova.

For those that have never heard of Jazzanova, they are a collective of 6 German DJs.  Based in Berlin, this group is one of the foremost proponents of the nu-jazz and jazz house styles of music.  That’s right. DJs.

Only one of the six DJs (Alexander Barck) made it to Beijing to spin for us one night this past June.  This tour was primarily to feature a singer Jazzanova’s record label, Sonar Kollectiv, signed and produce, Clara Hill.  Held at Beijing’s relocated Yugong Yishan club, the night was filled with sweet tunes and really, really hip people.

How do you describe nu-jazz/jazz house? It is the culmination and answer to anyone that has ever tried to conquer jazz fusion, or jazz and funk, or jazz and hip hop, or jazz and electronica.  It is the next evolution of what electronic instruments and the synthesizer have done to alter the trajectory of jazz in the past two decades.  From Herbie Hancock’s first encounter with a synthesizer in Miles Davis’ band and then immortalized the ‘retro’ synthesizer sound of the 80′s, to the wide-spread use of Fender Rhodes pianos today in such popular bands like Soul Live and electric guitars of Pat Metheny, electronic-based jazz music is here to stay and will only get more intricate.

DJs can do marvelous things with jazz, things that traditional jazz musicians have been less than successful in doing themselves with their original instruments.  Artists like Joshua Redman, Roy Hargrove, Stefan Harris and Marcus Miller have really pushed their art towards an electronic vibe feel.  Yet the cross-over to mainstream understanding and popularity has been difficult.  DJs have a totally different set of tools they can work with, as the turn table and the mixer allows them to sample multiple sounds all at once.  While jazz musicians create original source materials of any form or shape, DJs use this material in combination with any number of other source materials to create their music.  Nu-Jazz DJs like Jazzanova have a special skill in choice of jazz source materials.

Jazzanova is not alone in this frontier.  From France we have the famous St. Germain, who is heavier on mixing Jazz with House music.  We have 4hero and Bugz in the Attic both from the UK, who are highly influenced with House and Hip Hop.  Nujabes and Jazztronik, both from Japan have been producing absolutely amazing albums that can only come with the Japanese’s continued patronage of Jazz and Japanese Hip Hop.

The level of mastery these DJ groups have to have for their craft, on top of which the depth and breadth of knowledge they must possess in music history and theory, is astounding.  To be able to confidently select samples from Jazz and Hip Hop, Funk and Soul, House and Drum & Bass and mix them together for the perfect sound can only be described as genius.

When I first heard Jazzanova several years ago, it changed my Jazz music obsession forever.  Exploring the different type of Nu-Jazz DJs coming out from different parts of the world, and watching them collaborate has been extremely exciting.

Indeed, while this is still a new and very niche music that bisects a multitude of musical genres, I believe it is one powerful and rising movement that will come into its own prominence.

Most definitely this is still another new definition of Jazz.  It will not replace jazz tradition as the embodiment of Jazz, but it certainly will add to the conversation, create a new dynamic for action-reaction among jazz musicians, and perhaps catapult  jazz back into the mainstream hearts of music lovers.