Thursday, September 16, 2010

Beautiful, romantic, languorous: Esperanza Spalding’s “Chamber Music Society” CD review

Written with Brian Roessler (thank you, Brian). Originally published on Jazz Police.

Esperanza Spalding plays a massive instrument—the double bass—and carries a heavy weight on her slight, photogenic shoulders. She’s the new darling of jazz, the Next Big Thing, the One who will somehow convince young listeners that jazz isn’t moldering in its grave.

Just 25, she has played for President Obama, with Joe Lovano as part of his band Us Five, with Stevie Wonder, with McCoy Tyner, at a BET tribute to Prince. Oprah named her one of “Ten Women on the Rise.” Her new CD, Chamber Music Society, released in August on Heads Up, debuted as the #1 jazz album on iTunes, Amazon, Billboard’s Heatseeker Chart, and the CMJ Jazz Chart.

I had listened to Chamber Music Society casually but wanted to listen more closely before writing a review. And I wanted to hear it with a bass player. Brian Roessler, bassist and composer with the Fantastic Merlins, accepted my invitation and we spent a long afternoon together. Until then, he had heard just one track from the CD, “Winter Sun,” which was featured recently on NPR’s All Things Considered. He’s not a fan of Spalding’s previous CD, the self-titled Esperanza (Heads Up, 2008), considering it “too slick-sounding.”

We both like Chamber Music Society very much. And we both like Spalding’s singing, a sinuous blend of lyrics (many written by her) and pure sound, scatting and sighs. Some people don’t like her singing, and if you’re among them, Chamber Music Society is not for you, and maybe Spalding is not for you; she’s as much about singing as she is about playing bass. I like that she’s on pitch, she leaps tall intervals and lands them, and she treats her voice as another instrument in the band. Roessler likes the quality of her voice: “breathy, innocent-sounding. Not super-developed or polished. Genuine.”

Courtesy of Montuno Productions, photo by Sandrine Lee
Chamber Music Society is a concept album with a classical string trio: violin, viola, cello. Spalding has already announced her next project, also a concept album: Radio Music Society, which (according to a press release from her label) “features an exciting new repertoire of funk, hip-hop and rock elements fused into songs that are free from genre.” (I’m suspicious of the marketing phrase “free from genre,” which sounds like code for “Don’t worry, folks, it won’t be jazz!”)

Perhaps, like jazz violinist Regina Carter, Spalding is a concept-album person, following her passions and her curiosities. Chamber Music Society is an entity, a whole, maybe even a one-time thing, like Carter’s Paganini: After a Dream. It is not a collection of radio-friendly singles; most of the 11 tracks are longer than three minutes and one is much shorter. So even though some people speak of Spalding in the same breath as Norah Jones, the jazz/pop singer who sold truckloads of CDs for Blue Note, Spalding is not “the next Norah Jones.”

We begin at the beginning, with the first track, “Little Fly.” The lyrics are by poet William Blake, the music by Spalding. It’s a song I can’t get out of my head, it’s so tender and lovely. Roessler is struck by the story behind the song, which Spalding told on All Things Considered: She saw a book of Blake’s poems in a bookstore, thought it beautiful, bought it, copied this particular poem, and hung it above her desk for years, waiting for the music to come.

“I hardly know anyone who reads poems,” Roessler says. “So many musicians are so obsessed with music that they don’t notice things like poems and paintings, books and film.” He returns to this idea later in our conversation, noting that Spalding seems to have “a full life of appreciating beautiful things.”

Something wonderful informs this music—both her own compositions, and her selection of the few tracks not written by her—because one thing they all have in common is beauty. Chamber Music Society is a gorgeous album full of delicious moments that make you want to close your eyes and savor them. For that reason, among others, it invites repeat listenings.

Spalding is not afraid to take on big topics, with a wisdom that belies her 25 years. The next track, “Knowledge of Good and Evil,” tackles the fall of humankind with soaring strings and wordless, wide-ranging vocals. It’s lengthy (just under 8 minutes), intense, sometimes turbulent. “One thing I love about her bass playing is it’s so transparent,” Roessler says. “I don’t notice that she’s virtuosic because it all sounds great…. This feels like a band, not an album-with-strings.”

Neither of us takes to the next track, “Really Very Small.” Coming after “Little Fly” and “Knowledge of Good and Evil,” it feels like an exercise, lacking in emotional content. Roessler, admitting to a “weird analogy,” says it reminds him of Rush, a band he doesn’t especially like because “difficult things happen just because.” It’s a midsection of tricky rhythms bookended by a lyrical beginning and ending.

On to “Chacarera,” composed by Spalding’s piano player, Leo Genevose. This is a complex, almost symphonic piece that seems longer than it is (6:40). (At the end, I wonder aloud, “Did that have ten endings?”) Rather than feature piano, it spotlights acclaimed cellist David Eggar, which Roessler and I agree is a good thing. (Briefly, Eggar was a child prodigy, got his classical training at Juilliard and Harvard, and, like Spalding, doesn’t concern himself too much with genres.)

Photo by John Whiting
A lot happens musically—in Roessler’s words, “It’s kind of all over the map” and not for casual listening. “I’m interested in the fact that people are making such a big deal about this album,” Roessler says. “It doesn’t seem quite as accessible as I thought it would be. Especially this piece. It doesn’t have a simple, single melody you can walk away with.” Instead, it’s thick with themes, layers, mood shifts, and drama. I love “Little Fly,” but to me this is the most interesting track on the CD.

Spalding’s arrangement of the Dimitri Tiomkin/Ned Washington classic “Wild Is the Wind” (a song recorded by everyone from Johnny Mathis to David Bowie and Cat Power) is another big tune, a dark and stormy night of a song, colored with deep strings and Genovese’s melodica, the strange little free-reed keyboard instrument that everyone seems to be playing these days. (It looks like a toy, and you blow into it.) Spalding doesn’t just cover “Wild Is the Wind,” she inhabits it. Roessler’s assessment: “Great. I like that her arrangement of somebody else’s thing turns into a unique composition that fits as part of the whole sound of this record.”

On “Apple Blossom Time,” another Spalding original complete with lyrics, Milton Nascimento sings with her. Like “Knowledge of Good and Evil,” this is a serious song, about life and death, love and loss, grief and memory. Unlike “Knowledge,” it has a fairly simple, straightforward melody that repeats, like a folk song. The strings add depth and richness. Nascimento’s unusual singing style and otherworldly falsetto are a perfect complement to Spalding’s sweet voice. There’s a moment near the end where the voices and strings weave together and dance. Roessler says, “Now it sounds like a Joni Mitchell song. To me, that’s the highest compliment.”

At 41 seconds, the strings-filled, classical-sounding “As a Sprout” seems like a passing thought, a spoonful of sorbet. Roessler wonders if it’s there “to clear the emotional intensity of ‘Apple Blossom.’” It works as a transition from the sadness of that song and the sunniness of the next, “What a Friend.” This is not “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” (though “it would be cool if it was,” Roessler notes), but a lilting dialogue between slow and speedy, bass and voice, rising and falling.

“This is starting to feel more and more like a fantastic, unselfconscious combination of the things [Spalding] is interested in,” Roessler says. “Jazz things and classical things and Latin-flavored things, almost all of them almost all of the time. But it feels very natural. From a technical perspective, it’s remarkable writing.”

You can hear Spalding discuss and deconstruct the album’s next track, “Winter Sun,” on NPR. After the glories of “Chacarera” and “Wild is the Wind,” neither of us finds it especially compelling. Roessler describes it as “fusiony, very clean—too clean and neat. Pretty poppy, which is probably why they played it on the radio. Within the context of this album, it’s one of the least interesting pieces musically.”

We move on to “Inútil Paisagem” (“If You Never Come to Me”), Jobim’s song of love and longing (“What is the evening without you? It’s nothing”). Many people have recorded this; my favorite takes are Kurt Elling’s on Night Moves, where he combines it with “Change Partners,” and Nancy King’s with Fred Hersch on their Live at Jazz Standard collaboration.

Courtesy of Montuno Productions, photo by Sandrine Lee
Spalding’s version on Chamber Music Society, with her friend Gretchen Parlato joining her on vocals, may be the album’s one serious misstep. Both Roessler and I immediately think “Bobby McFerrin imitation.” I mind this less than Roessler, who dubs it “distracting. It would be so much more beautiful to hear [Spalding] singing the song and playing the bass.” I venture that to come up with something original is challenging. He counters with “Originality is overrated. To me, the question has to be, ‘Is it good? Is it beautiful?’ I’d much rather listen to beautiful than original.”

The final track, “Short and Sweet,” is languorous and wistful. In it you can almost hear the story of a relationship, which may account for the title. Spalding and Genovese take thoughtful, expressive solos and the strings paint broad swaths of color. The ending is sudden and unexpected, leaving the final phrase unfinished, hanging in mid-air. We both love it.

I say “languorous” and Roessler says, “The whole record could be described as languorous, in a good way. Relaxed. It’s very romantic music. It makes me think of the south of France. Romantic in a traditional way—the life of the spirit, the quest for beauty and love.” Overall? “I think it’s amazing. I’m blown away.”

I’m a bit embarrassed that Roessler is the one who calls attention to the fact that two main players in the rhythm section are women: Spalding on bass, Terri Lyne Carrington on drums. “I don’t want to open this can of worms—jazz and gender politics—but in this band, the rhythm section is dominated by women, which is really unusual,” he says. “Women drummers are super rare, women bass players almost as rare, and they’re almost never together in a group.”

Carrington is not part of Spalding’s regular quartet and (to my knowledge) won’t be on her Chamber Music Society tour, which begins Sept. 17 in Grinnell, Iowa, and comes to the Dakota in Minneapolis on Sept. 21–22. Her drummer at the Dakota will be Francisco Mela.

Follow the Chamber Music Society tour on Esperanza Spalding’s website. 

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