Esperanza Spalding: More Than Pleasant

This week, NPR Music is streaming the entirety of Chamber Music Society, the new album by Esperanza Spalding. Hear the full album preview as part of our Exclusive First Listen series.

Esperanza Spalding i i

Esperanza Spalding, all strung out. Sandrine Lee hide caption

itoggle caption Sandrine Lee
Esperanza Spalding

Esperanza Spalding, all strung out.

Sandrine Lee

Considering all the jazz artists who ever have reached a wide audience outside the jazz community, I'm quite happy that Esperanza Spalding is doing it now.

I think most fellow jazz obsessives would agree. But it's also possible to detect something demeaning or backhanded about that statement, as in, "She's great — for a mainstream crossover act." Some might actually feel this way, and others wouldn't be off base to be suspicious, given the "meh" history of crossover acts/"it" people of the last 40 years.

I don't think this. She's more than pleasant or agreeable: She's legitimately great at music, period. My happiness is in seeing that a creative musician can reach lots of people with a genuine message. And I think her upcoming album, Chamber Music Society, proves it better than anything she's put out on disc to date.

Check out "Little Fly," the first track on her new record. Her label has made her a simple music video for it:

It's Spalding's setting of William Blake's poem "The Fly," a metaphysical meditation if there ever was one. She's chosen to accompany a charming original melody with only her double bass and a string trio: violin, viola and cello, arranged by Gil Goldstein. And after she sings, she plays a little bass solo over pizzicato strings: peppy but compact, accented by wordless vocal flourishes.

I point it out not because it's the most original thing ever heard: Jazz + strings isn't exactly a new formula, and one Internet destination tracks more than 40 different settings of that poem alone. But forget "innovation" — this feels original. It sounds like a simple idea which a small group of people put a lot of time into getting just right, one arco sweep, double stop or falling vocal cadence at a time. And it's expressed this way, with that voice, and that phrasing, and those timbres...

This tune, this opening aperitif, really is quite beautiful, and perhaps quite telling. The rest of the record tends to choo-choo along with more steam, and more rickety rails. And we know Spalding can emote, can go for that soulful R&B expressivity, can let it all hang out. (The pop-influenced yin to this album's yang, Radio Music Society, will arrive within a year.) Here, she's turning inward. It's often said that ballads are the true tests of jazz musicians; this particular environment, somehow both spare and lush, underscores that she has not only the chops to execute, but also the vision to imagine such a departure to begin with.

I don't love everything Spalding does on this record, but my criticisms are almost immaterial. I don't get that feeling I get on this tune, and on a few others, with many other musicians who travel beyond jazz. Heck, I don't get that feeling with a lot of performers who never break out of the jazz bubble at all.

Apart from all this, there are lots of reasons to like the idea of Esperanza Spalding. She's a she. She's 25, obviously talented (a Berklee instructor at age 20!) and has already played challenging runs with Joe Lovano and McCoy Tyner. She's informed by the various rhythms of her generation in popular music; she doesn't think in terms of genre, but so clearly comes from the jazz community. She sings with evident pleasure. She's a charismatic performer, full of natural stage presence. She's also humble in interviews, ever questing to learn more. She's from rough financial circumstances, but found career success playing music, much in the way it frequently used to be done with jazz. And she's, well, photogenic: the 'fro, the face, the threads, the skin tone. The many things that she is make for an intriguing story in themselves.

These contextual details count for a lot in how we experience music; even one little bit of information can filter your perception of where someone is coming from in his or her art. Or they make you want to root for or dislike the musician.

I don't claim to be immune to these supposedly peripheral charms; I also don't know why anyone would want to be. But if you insist on the full divorce between the art and its backstory, Chamber Music Society is still full of moments like "Little Fly," where an ambitious idea meets with masterful execution. It might just sell you on the idea that Spalding's creativity ceiling is a bit higher than you thought — regardless of what you thought.

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