Esperanza Spalding has phenomenal hair. If you meet her in her street clothes, you may not notice it; she keeps it tucked inconspicuously away, miraculously to be honest, under a knit cap. But right before she took the "stage" at NPR Music's Tiny Desk, she doffed her piece to unveil a massive, overflowing 'fro. More than one of us wondered from which secret hiding place it all emanated.
Spalding stows a lot of talent in small packages. She's not a very tall person — diminutive, really — but has made a career of playing the imposing double bass with jazz giants. She sings, too, with a high-pitched but husky flavor, making it easy to wonder how she generates the lung capacity for her acrobatic, high-wire feats. For reference, spend time with the middle tune here, the standard "Midnight Sun." She goes at it solo, just bass and voice, and generates plenty of horsepower.
But it's not sheer musical talent that makes her a winning (and bread-winning) performer — after all, there are plenty of chops to go around in jazz. Spalding has a certain poise, a way of engaging a crowd, of controlling a room. It's usually seen as a large-scale projection, a friendly demeanor greeting a festival or performing arts center crowd of thousands. In this most awkwardly cramped of stages, her deep conviction was a dominant force.
For her Tiny Desk Concert, she mostly called original tunes from Chamber Music Society, her new album pairing a jazz rhythm section with a three-piece string trio. The two tunes bookending her set alternated the gossamer with the rich and darkly hued: the album opener "Little Fly," her setting of a William Blake poem, and "Apple Blossom," featuring her regular guitarist, Ricardo Vogt.
Spalding conceived of Chamber Music Society as an intimate experience, a close musical exchange between a small group of friends. If it was intimacy she wanted, she got her wish: The constraints of Bob Boilen's workspace ensured that all the players were nice and cozy. We liked what she had in mind.
- "Little Fly"
- "Midnight Sun"
- "Apple Blossom"