Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Esperanza! (Spalding)

I'd like to set the record straight: I love the young bass player Esperanza Spalding's first album, "Junjo." I love the way it sounds like virtually nothing else in jazz; the wordless, expressive vocals sometimes highlighting a melody, occasionally sung along with the bass solo... the way that the band manages to sound minimal and huge at the same time due to the total lack of overdubs... the way you could hear Spalding's energy (albeit quiet, contained energy) just bursting at the seams of the recording, but never quite taking over to a point of destroying the piano trio aesthetic present. When I found out that Spalding would be singing much more (and with lyrics!) on her new album "Esperanza," I was afraid that the barely contained aesthetic of "Junjo" would be gone forever, replaced by a latin-flavored Norah Jones record; Esperanza would succumb to pressure from her other Monk-generation compatriot Ambrose Akinmusire to go R&B, and she would create the worst of all jazz travesties: a crossover record.

Upon first listen, I realized that all of my worst fears had been realized. After a second run through, all I could think was "why did she abandon the wordless vocals and obscure covers of 'Junjo' for this song-writer stuff?" Finally, about an hour ago, I realized that I've listened to this album ten times in the past two days. And then, as I began writing this, I figured it out. I love this album. All of the vocals with lyrics? Gorgeous; she has an incredible voice suited well for everything from Portuguese (the sing-song opener, "Ponta De Areia," is a cover of a tune by Brazilian song-writer Milton Nascimento) to Spanish. The R&B stuff? Beautiful. And somehow, in addition to all of this, she manages to throw in a track with the wordless vocals I loved from "Junjo," called "I Adore You," which will make it onto every mix CD I make for anyone in the coming year, and at least two brilliant straight ahead tracks, including a version of "Body and Soul," sung in Spanish and played in 5/4 (with a killer bass solo), and a post-bop instrumental dedicated to drummer Francisco Mela.

Even the most blatantly cross-over material on here manages to be worth listening to. "Precious," a song about being wronged by a lover that has no right to be anything but cliched, manages to come out as one of the album's most compulsively listenable tracks. "She Got to You," also about being wronged by a lover, contains some of pianist Leo Genovese's best work on the whole record. In fact, every band member does incredible work on this; Jamey Haddad's percussion is great throughout the album, as is Otis Brown's work on the drumset. As for the guest spots, which include Ambrose Akinmusire, Donald Harrison, and (not nearly enough) Gretchen Parlato, each only appears on a few tracks, leaving you wanting more.

I would love it if Esperanza Spalding were the next Norah Jones, and I think the world would be a happier place in general if people listened to this album in the least cynical way possible. Highly recommended.

Next time I'll have a review of David Sanchez' "Cultural Survival," and maybe something else. I was initially thinking I'd do a two-fer with "Esperanza," but I gave up on it when I started writing.

No comments: