The debut recording by this 22-year-old Berklee instructor and Portland, Oregon native features Brazilian-inflected jazz in the company of Cuban bandmates, released by a Spanish record label. Put that way, Junjo sounds terribly worldly and logistically complicated, but in fact the record comes across as an intimate affair executed with a light touch.
The Brazilian accent is most discernible when Spalding accompanies her bass playing with wordless singing (except on "Cantoro de Yala," which she sings, diffidently, in Spanish). This vein is well-known to jazz listeners: the music sometimes recalls Flora Purim's singing on Chick Corea's records, other times the up-tempo, melodically complex terrain covered by Maria Schneider on Concert in the Garden (Artist Share, 2005). The circular melody on "Mompouana" is an especially nice example, with a catchiness that would suit lots of radio airplay. Regrettably, jazz hits aren't so common anymore.
Spalding's bass playing has the same disingenuous and ingratiating charm as her singing, with more easy virtuosity as well. And indeed, that combination of characteristics imbues the entire date, right down to the selection of material (some good originals; a nicely bass-driven version of "The Peacocks").
The trio's playing has a slightly impromptu, rough and ready quality: this does not prevent splendid flashes of precision from pianist Aruan Ortiz, who is excellent throughout. Drummer Francisco Mela is slightly less subtle, sometimes knocking about a bit, but he's generally well-suited to the vaguely (or explicitly) Latin rhythms.
Junjo is not perfect: plenty of passages and some entire numbers don't exactly gel. But the whole project is so thoroughly infused with freshness that it almost doesn't matter. Spalding's first outing manages to be brash but not arrogant, eccentric but not abstruse, appealing but neither facile nor populist. A fine balance.
The Peacocks; Loro; Humpty Dumpty; Mompouana; Perazuan; Junjo; Cantora de Yala; Two Bad; Perazela.
Esperanza Spalding: bass, voice; Francisco Mela: drums; Aruan Ortiz: piano.
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