Esperanza Spalding: Jazz’s Great Hope or Hype?

"Wanna hear me play 'Purple Haze' on this thing?"

Whenever a new CD arrives in the mail I open it with the hope it’s going to be something I will be excited to listen to and I will be motivated to write a glowing review recommending it to potential buyers.

Sometimes that’s exactly how it plays out.  Most of the time it’s just a chore.   There’s a lot of music out there and a good deal of it is bad, boring, forgettable or all three.

Which is why I was absolutely surprised to read of Esperanza Spalding receiving a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist.   Jazz artists don’t usually get thrown in the mix right along with pop acts like Justin Bieber and Drake.   It looks like the big push her record label put behind Chamber Music Society,  her newest album, really paid off.

It helps if you can come up with a particularly compelling hook to separate you from the pack.   Spalding’s is she  sings and plays the acoustic bass;  an instrument that looks bigger that she is.   The fact that’s she’s easy on the eyes doesn’t hurt either.  Spalding played for President Obama at his Nobel Prize presentation and was invited by Prince to perform on his “Welcome 2 America” tour.

Well,  good for Esperanza.   It’s a nice change to see an actual musician getting a little taste of some acclaim and awards.   Maybe she’ll make a buck or two as well.

Unfortunately, I can’t stand Chamber Music Society.  It is a terrible album  which I had to force myself to listen to in its entirety.   I had a root canal I enjoyed more.    It was easily one of the worst records I’ve heard all year.

Everything about the album screamed “big push” about Chamber Music Society.  The art, photography and packaging were first-class all the way.  You just don’t see that kind of time and expense put into a jazz record that might sell several thousand–maybe.    Then again, for most folks their image of jazz is either some old Black dude honking into a saxophone or Kenny G. noodling away on some snooze jazz shit.    There’s a definite “hey, she’s a babe” vibe to Spalding’s sudden success.

It’s not in her music, that’s for sure.   Yes, she plays some competently, but it’s not going to inspire a nation of anorexic teenage girls to pull their fingers out of their mouths to pick up the upright bass.   Spalding is good, but she’s hardly transcendent.

Then there’s her singing.  She sang a lot on her previous album, Esperanza and she’s singing even more on Chamber Music Society.   That’s a mistake as I noted when I reviewed the record for All About Jazz.

...she’s going to have to decide whether she’s a bassist who sings, or a singer who plays bass. She may choose to be both, but while Spalding is a capable vocalist, she has a long way to go before she becomes an exceptional one. As a bassist, she’s much closer.

As the principal musician, songwriter, composer and producer, Esperanza Spalding might have been better served to have an executive producer supervising. There is a lot of ground covered here; and while she’s brimming with ideas, this album is crying out for some judicious editing. You can hear the joy and passion of this 23-year-old talent, and you certainly can’t criticize her for enthusiasm.

The trouble is Spalding doesn’t know when to quit when she’s ahead. Clocking in at over an hour in length, she doesn’t really have enough first-rate material to justify the running time. Some of the songs go on too long, meander tediously and become a bit repetitious. Spalding’s intentions never seem less than a willingness to please and demonstrate her considerable chops, but she doesn’t yet know that more isn’t always better. Sometimes more is just more, and a little restraint could have boosted Esperanza from “pretty good” to “great.

Shows what I know because everything I worried about in 2008–her lack of vocal strength and range, her tendency toward excess and a lack of first-rate material–is made even worse in 2010.

Look,  maybe it’s just me.   No two people hear the same thing the same way.   I listen to Spalding and I hear someone who isn’t as good a singer as she believes she is.   I report and you decide for yourself.

In a conversation with a jazz fan, I said I was so disappointed by Spalding’s record I passed on reviewing it.   When you know you’re going to be the lone holdout and you’re yawning at what everybody else is raving about, maybe it’s you that’s the odd ball.    Sometimes it really is better to say nothing at all when you can’t say anything nice and I had nothing nice to say about Chamber Music Society.

We agreed Spalding is not the Next Big Thing.   If anything,  Spalding is a victim of too much, too soon.   She’s still too young (26 years old), too inexperienced as a supporting player though she has worked with vets like Joe Lovano and McCoy Tyner.   It’s ready or not, Spalding has been appointed the newest savior of jazz music.

Jazz always needs new blood.   While it’s true the old guys are doing nothing but getting older and there’s a serious lack of interest in jazz in America, the genre has been pronounced dying or dead for years.   But jazz not only survives, it thrives.     It’s a good thing that someone like Spalding comes along, but it’s her looks as much as her music that’s drawing attention.

Spalding’s follow-up, Radio Music Society drops early in 2011 with her switching from acoustic to electric bass.   I won’t prejudge an album I haven’t heard yet, but my expectation is a little less playing and even more singing.    She’s not so young she doesn’t know what’s going to help her get over.

Eat your heart out, Troy Polamalu.