Ever since the 53rd Grammy Awards telecast on February 13, 2011, jazz artist Esperanza Spalding has become a household name. Not only did she win the coveted Best New Artist trophy, she beat out some daunting—and more familiar—competition, namely Justin Bieber. Controversy aside (some enraged Bieber fans actually vandalized Spalding’s Wikipedia page after the ceremony), Spalding is an impressive stand-up bass player, singer, and composer who demonstrates her abilities on her latest album, Chamber Music Society.
The title “Best New Artist” is a bit of a misnomer for Spalding, as she has been a fixture on the jazz scene for a few years. At 16 she enrolled in Portland State University’s music program—the youngest bass player in the department—and eventually earned her B.M. at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in 2005. Immediately after graduation she began teaching there, honing her craft and forging connections with artists such as saxophonist Joe Lovano, guitarist Pat Metheny, and bassist Stanley Clarke. By 2008 she released her first solo album, Esperanza, which earned critical acclaim and led to her winning the Jazz Journalists Association’s 2009 Jazz Award for Up and Coming Artist of the Year. Subsequently she made the jazz festival rounds, performing at such events as the Newport Jazz Festival and Central Park SummerStage in New York.
Proving her emerging talent was no fluke, Spalding’s latest album, Chamber Music Society, brings together her classical background, love of world music and folk, and her forays into free jazz. The album represents one of those works that requires close listening, as her bass playing defies description. Tunes such as “Little Fly” and “Knowledge of Good and Evil” feature a string section’s delicate notes while Spalding, gently plucking the bass, demonstrates that classical and jazz can complement each other. Interestingly, the lyrics to “Little Fly” are derived from a William Blake poem. “Chacarera” uses exotic percussion as an undercurrent to the strings and Spalding’s bass, making for a fascinating listening experience. Another world-music-influenced track, “Inutil Paisagem,” is bare-bones, consisting of Spalding’s bass, accompanied by two voices: Spalding’s and Gretchen Parlato’s; the latter provides percussion through hand claps. These simple elements combine to form a lovely, lilting Latin tune.
A particular highlight, the uptempo “Winter Sun” allows Spalding to exhibit her considerable bass-playing skills as well as use her lovely voice. Traditional and modern jazz fans will find much to like, as her playing truly swings. Exquisite piano solos by Leo Genovese also propel the track to new heights; overall the composition reminds listeners of Spalding’s deep jazz roots. Just listen to her dexterous middle solo, and be amazed by her skills. “Winter Sun,” along with Chamber Music Society’s other tracks, proves how Spalding is a songwriting talent and accomplished musician. “Really Very Small” shows her love of complicated yet harmonic jazz, with rapidly-changing tempos and moods. At times the two tempos intersect, creating a jarring yet pleasing effect. “What A Friend” echoes this technique, but its funky keyboards recall Miles Davis’ fusion period, best reflected through his classic Bitches Brew. Again, Spalding keeps the listener guessing through altered tempos and mood shifts, yet her solid bass anchors the wide-ranging sounds.
Chamber Music Society should appeal to any fan who enjoys a broader type of jazz, one that incorporates a variety of genres. In addition, Spalding draws her lyrics from poetry, the Bible, and other sources. Like Jaco Pastorius, she proves that the bass can be just as compelling a lead instrument as the piano or guitar. Considering her clearly impressive musical gifts, it seems likely that Chamber Music Society exemplifies only the beginning of great things to come from this artist. Indeed, Spalding’s album should be required listening for any jazz fan, and it demonstrates that sometimes the Grammy Awards gets it right.