The first time I saw bassist-singer- composer Esperanza Spalding, she wasn’t yet being touted as The Next Big Thing. This was long before the succession of magazine covers, The New Yorker profile, and being named one of Oprah’s “Ten Women on the Rise” for 2010. She was an instructor at the Berklee College of Music then, and her debut recording had just come out (2006’s Junjo on the small Barcelona-based Ayva Musica label) and flew under the radar of most critics. But one look at her at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston (she opened for McCoy Tyner as part of the 2006 Beantown Jazz Festival) and I knew she was bound for stardom.
Fast-forward nine months: Spalding is playing the Montreal Jazz Festival with her trio at The Spectrum. Here was a Canadian audience who had never laid eyes on this unknown artist, and yet after just two songs was captivated by her charismatic charms. Was it her pure, angelic vocals, her exceptional upright bass skills, or her huge dimples and audacious Angela Davis/Betty Mabry Afro hairstyle that won them over? It was easy for all to see how abundantly gifted this 22-year-old was and where she was headed.
Esperanza had a smash hit in 2008 with her self-titled debut on the Heads Up label. Now comes her artistic manifesto in Chamber Music Society. With keyboardist Genovese back on board, along with drummer Teri Lynne Carrington, percussionist Quintino Cinalli, and a string trio (Entcho Todorov, Lois Martin,
David Eggar), Spalding artfully marries elements of jazz, folk, and pop into an intriguing new take on “chamber music.” She establishes an adventurous tone from the opening track by setting William Blake’s poem “Little Fly” to a gentle melody accompanied only by her bass and the three string players. It’s a clever idea that she imbues with her ethereal yet confident vocals that waft into the Norah Jones zone. “Knowledge of Good and Evil” is a harmonically challenging number with the full ensemble that stretches Spalding to the peaks of her lovely soprano range and has her weaving seamless lines with the flute-like wordless vocals of Gretchen Parlato. She also blends beautifully with Parlato on a sparse interpretation of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Inutil Paisagem,” with the two interwoven voices supported only by Spalding’s rich bass.
“Really Very Small” has Esperanza investigating the rhythmic possibilities of setting a 6/8 melody over a percolating a 7/8 meter while “Winter Sun” shows off her considerable scat prowess and soulful delivery over a shifting, syncopated groove fueled by Carrington’s explosive drumming. “Charcarera” continues Spalding’s ongoing interest in Latin- flavored rhythms. The chops-busting unison lines here in voice, piano, and cello recall some of Chick Corea’s work with vocalist Gayle Moran on his 1975 release, The Leprechaun. Esperanza’s fresh treatment of the Dimitri Tiomkin-Ned Washington tune “Wild is the Wind” has Genovese on melodica and features some subtle tango allusions while her own lilting “Apple Blossom” pairs her with legendary Brazilian artist Milton Nascimento for some engaging vocal duets, backed by Richard Vogt’s nylon- string guitar work and Gil Goldstein’s interactive string arrangements. In short: a triumphant third offering from The Next Big Thing