I don’t know if Esperanza Spalding is real. Surely the bassist-singer is real in the sense that I saw her and her badass band play the Wharton Center on Jan. 20th. And surely she’s the “real deal,” attesting to any avocation of her sizable skills. And yet, someone seemingly capable of anything cannot be, forgive me, genuinely real.
All bad jokes aside, it’s true that musically she’s got an unbelievable amount to offer (and her looks and personality don’t hurt either). So like jazz guitarist George Benson in the 1970s, she has great crossover appeal. But regardless of her being 26-years-young, or the fact that she’s played for the Obama White House and has taught at the prestigious Berklee College of Music since the age of 20 – making her the youngest faculty member in the history of the college – nor that she buoyantly sings in three languages (Portuguese, Spanish and English) and flirts with the music of Stevie Wonder and Wayne Shorter as much as she does with her audience, it could be said that Esperanza Spalding’s talent is almost too pronounced. This is the only criticism I can give after coming away awestruck from her performance with a quartet that included pianist Leo Genovese, the Brazilian guitarist Riccardo Vogt and John Davis on drums.
They were absolutely superb, and her ebullient charisma was infectious.
Before anyone even played a note, her band mates already seemed to recognize the brilliance they were backing. Silently they strolled onstage without her. The audience was at first coolly receptive. Mr. Vogt began to quickly groove on three chords, and the piano and drums fell in line. Esperanza entered after about a minute of this and sang to the crowd with open arms – “GOOD-EVENING.” It was indeed a bold entrance, but one that taught us all a lesson – this was her show. And why not? If you can’t stop a shooting star, how do you stop a rising one?
The groove that Mr. Vogt had started developed into “I Adore You,” a composition from her 2008 album Esperanza. Essentially a Latin shuffle, the song was so ridiculously funky, with her soaring flute-like voice scatting up, down and around a beat that Mr. Davis began to stop and start at will; it ultimately exemplified her propensity to see what a musical neighborhood of Latin music, jazz-funk fusion and r&b/soul actually resembles. This neighborhood doesn’t yet have a name. Not that Esperanza cares.
Now hybridity can definitely be problematic, especially if it’s being touted as the “next-step” in, or “savior” of a musical genre. All the same, Esperanza Spalding cooks up something different, something edible and indeed delectable; something with pop music plans. Songs from Esperanza like “I Know You Know” and “Precious,” if not for their inherently syncopated rhythms, are sophisticated pop songs about love learned and love lost. The grooves in these songs, and a new one called “Cinnamon Tree,” are ripped right from the fabric of popular music. They aren’t simple, per se, but they’re laid-back and easy to digest as something other than the often fussy and stuffy jazz. Esperanza wants you to forget that she is a jazz musician. She is fresh. She doesn’t worry about boundaries because, as she told the audience, good music is “just about soul.”
All but one song off Esperanza and all but two songs from the two-hour live set had vocals. On record her voice is flawless, as if she is singing through a crystalline pipe, like on her version of Milton Nascimento’s Brazilian flavored “Ponta De Areia.” Live, she isn’t flawless; she’s fearless, and the difference lets her personality shine like the sun. The constant presence of her bona fide sirens’ call of a voice – high pitched, silvery and seductive –fluently beacons her irresistible personality. It juts out and cries. It simmers but doesn’t simmer down, and it never ever lags. So this is where her crossover appeal lies. She can be the next great bassist if she wants to (her stint with top-notch saxophonist Joe Lovano demonstrates this), but I think she’d rather be listened to as a soul sister able to thwack a bass figure than be revered like any first-rate 26-year-old Ron Carter or Dave Holland acolyte.
Esperanza prefaced her song “Precious” by mentioning that she had great aspirations to write a pop song. A pop song that would be sung by teenyboppers round the world and make her a millionaire from royalties. A pop song for someone like Jay-Z or Beyoncé. Except her jazz upbringing kept getting in the way of this perfect pop song. For those of us who like their music to have a little bit of finesse, or be a little bit brainy (or dare I say jazzy?), we can be thankful for the verve and virtuosity of Esperanza Spalding.