For the purist who wants to know what all the excitement is about Esperanza Spalding, they can skip directly to track 11"If That's True"of her sophomore album Esperanza, where she works out on the acoustic bass in an all-out jam with Donald Harrison on alto saxophone and Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet. It flat-out smokes, and showcases the Berklee-trained bassist as potentially one of the more promising young talents in jazz.
First though, 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."
Spalding's vocals are best when she's scatting and freestyling on "I Adore You" and "Cuerpo Y Alma," with the latter built around Leo Genovese's piano, Otis Brown's drums and her bass. Singing in Portuguese without lyrics serves Spalding well, because while her singing is pretty and occasionally even soars, her range is limited and some of the lyrics are a bit humdrum.
On the outstanding "Mela," Spalding allows Akinmusire's trumpet to take the lead as she dutifully holds the bottom down and drummer Horacio Hernandez madly pounds the hell out of his kit. This track and "If That's True" are the strongest indicators of how "bad as she wanna be" Spalding is when she plays within the dynamics of the group and is not the star attraction.
Blessed with talent, youth, training and outrageously good looks, Spalding is a young woman ready to make some noise, and is here to stay in the jazz world. If she can just check some of her excesses and play to her strengths, she's going to be making more and better music for a long time to come.
Track Listing: Ponta de Arela; I Know You Know; Fall In; I Adore You; Cuerpo Y Alma (Body & Soul); She Got to You; Precious; Mela; Love in Time; Espera; If That's True; Samba Em Preludo.