NO SING-ALONGS: But Spalding’s last album was as much jazz as pop, and her new one is as much jazz as classical.
The official word on Esperanza Spalding's new album suggests that it's the "difficult" one after her bestselling major-label 2008 debut, Esperanza, which spent 70 weeks on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz chart. In some quarters, it caught a bit of flak for being too pop — and maybe weak pop at that. The new one, Chamber Music Society (Heads Up), is a return to Spalding's roots as a violinist with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon.
But here's the deal: when you listen back on it, that first album doesn't seem so pop after all. And the new one isn't late Beethoven. Esperanza satisfied for all sorts of reasons, with its choice of offbeat covers (Milton Nascimento's "Ponta de Areia" and Baden Powell's "Samba em Preludio") and unusual takes on the familiar (a 5/4 arrangement of "Body and Soul" — sung in Portuguese). On her indie debut, Junjo, and in Boston clubs, Spalding was known for improvising wordless vocal counterpoint to her acoustic-bass playing. On Esperanza, for the first time, she sang a lot of lyrics (some of them originals). But every song featured sterling improvisations and unpredictable grooves. And the hookiest song on the record was a jazz-band tour-de-force, "I Adore You," a Brazilian-inflected original that was also a standard sing-along in the clubs.
Meanwhile, for all its "chamber music" quality (violin, viola, and cello join the mix), the new album is still recognizably the Spalding of Junjo and Esperanza in its mix of experimentation, smartly arranged and chosen covers, and love of pop. There are more wordless vocals, but there are also relatively straight-ahead lyric turns on Jobim's "Inútil Paisagem" (for just bass and the vocals of Spalding and Gretchen Parlato) and Dimitri Tiomkin & Ned Washington's "Wild Is the Wind" (a standard for Nina Simone). She even sets William Blake's "Little Fly" as straight-up folk pop. On the more exploratory side of things are "Knowledge of Good and Evil," with its wayward strings and keyboards wending around those wordless vocals, and pianist Leo Genovese's "Chacarera," with its abstract take on the tango-like Argentine form for which it's named.
"There's no sing-alongs on this one," Spalding tells me over the phone from New York, her second home after Austin, where she moved last October. When I talk to her, the band have played only their first show of the tour, which comes to Sanders Theatre on Saturday. Spalding says the show is introduced in a theatrical way that's geared to refocus people's attention, "so that you're ready to listen. You're not looking for show pyrotechnics."
She adds that in putting the CD together, she came up with various ideas — some funky and danceable, others "pensive and really slow and focusing on the melody and counterpoint." That more "pensive" material is what came to define the album. "What a Friend" is typical. "That evolved at a time when I was transcribing a lot of Bach inventions." Working by ear, she'd write out the lines for bass and voice. "I was recording myself to see where I was out of tune." The sound of the bass/voice counterpoint stuck with her as she moved on to write the material for Chamber Music Society.