A few months ago, I was flipping through the channels and settled on Dave Letterman for a few minutes. I was delighted to see that his music guest was not some horrible new indie band, but a jazz bassist and vocalist. After hearing Esperanza Spalding play and sing, I did the requisite Wikipedia search, and found out she was a faculty member at Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. At twenty-four. Needless to say, I was impressed with her and depressed at my own lack of accomplishments. (Really, I’m fine with that, but the thrill of über-talented youth is getting to me—did you win eight gold medals last week? I didn’t. I barely managed to floss every night.)
Spalding’s second album, “Esperanza,” satisfies my current craving for pretty vocals and interesting rhythms. Most of the time, I settle for either element. Esperanza gives me everything in her voice. Don’t get me wrong, the accompanying musicians and music are enjoyable and provide a great counterpoint to her. If you stripped all of that away, however, you’d still be left with a wonderful track. Her voice is luscious, and she nails syncopated beats with ease. Additionally, she’s a great bass player and frequently provides a wonderful combination of skat and soloing on the bass.
The timbre of Spalding’s voice is so happy it warms my little soul. “Ponta de Areia,” “I Adore You,” and “Precious” exude cheerfulness in tone and cadence, even if not in lyrics. “Ponta de Areia” begins with an Afro-Cuban influenced chant, accompanied by a syncopated percussion beat. A laid back, slightly funky beat follows with smooth vocals. “I Adore You” is a wordless song driven by a latin-funk groove. Spalding’s voice glides effortlessly up and down scales and rhythms. The energetic “Precious” somehow captures a playful spirit within verses full of pain. Spalding’s voice could probably even make the Book of Job sound happy.
I hesitate to harshly criticize any song on this album as none really deserves it based on musical merit. However, I’m not completely sold on “Cuerpo y alma.” Yet. “Cuerpo y alma” (“Body and Soul”) is a good song overall. Spalding takes the standard “Body and Soul,” translates it into Spanish and then successfully converts it into 5/4. I really like her bass line, the bold choice in meter, and the piano solo. The song grooves, but I’m not sure if her ballad-like take on the lyrics works with her voice or the beat. Of course she hits each note perfectly, but the long stretches of words don’t fit comfortably with the rest of the song. To me. It’s worth listening to since it seems like a matter of preference more than anything, but something feels off to me.
On my last post, I mentioned my love of female musicians. This may become a theme. Esperanza Spalding is clearly one of my current favorites. She’s a good bass player—not just for a female. Her voice is lovely. I bet Spalding is wonderful in a live venue. Most of the time, if a jazz vocalist can captivate you on his/her vocal talents on an album, they will blow you away in a live setting. Hopefully she’ll wander through the Midwest sometime soon.