Breaking through

By JON GARELICK  |  May 19, 2008

Esperanza is a more buttoned-down affair. All but one of its dozen tracks are vocal features, and the wordless vocalise is kept to a minimum, as are the bass solos. That’s no wonder: when jazz crosses over, it’s done by singers. (No one’s buying Diana Krall for her piano playing.) But if the Cleveland-based Heads Up is a crossover label, it also has acoustic-jazz cred. In addition to plenty of blue-chip fusion in its stable (Spyro Gyra, the Yellow Jackets, Najee), there’s also the late Michael Brecker’s final album, Pilgrimage, which has been on the charts for a year and is resolutely hardcore acoustic jazz, with guests like Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny.

For Esperanza, Spalding, producing herself, stuck with her regular trio mates — her Berklee classmate Leo Genovese on piano and drummer Otis Brown — and added percussionist and Berklee faculty member Jamey Haddad. The three covers — Milton Nascimento’s “Ponta de Areia,” Baden Powell’s “Samba em Preludio,” and the Green-Heyman standard “Body and Soul” — are well chosen and well played (the Powell as a duet with flamenco guitarist Niño Josele). Not only does she sing “Body and Soul” in Spanish, she sets it to a 5/4 arrangement.

Her own love-song writing shows an affinity for pop and R&B, and she’s performing her own lyrics for the first time since her days as a teenager in a Portland band. Yet her pop is always informed with jazz. The fast patter of “I Know You Know” is stuffed with syllables for maximum rhythmic play, but it’s also undeniably hooky. “Fall In” is R&B with jazz chords, performed as a vocal/piano duo. “Precious” has a Joni Mitchell–discursive verse with an R&B chorus. “Love in Time” sounds like a ballad standard in the making, with jazz chords all the way through it and passages of straight-swing rhythm.

What’s more, Spalding shows more vocal power and range here than in the past. At Bob’s, she used to turn the wordless “I Adore You” into an audience sing-along. Here she takes an extended full-voiced scat turn with a backing vocal chorus. In both “Love in Time” and the otherwise instrumental “Mela,” she goes for big dramatic high notes. And the pyrotechnics over odd chords on the kiss-off “She Got to You” (with alto-saxophonist Donald Harrison) could come out of Dominque Eade’s book.

Heads Up president Dave Love is up front about wanting to broaden Spalding’s audience and “showcasing all her great talents. One of them that was overlooked on the first album was that she was a wonderful vocalist who could sing in three languages.” Love says that at first he saw Spalding as “acoustic pop,” but then he realized that the jazz, world-music, and multi-lingual approach gave her broader appeal. “She can get on the cover of Jazziz, she can get a multiple-page feature in Downbeat or Bass Player, then she can get reviewed by Relix and then the next week play the Roots Family Picnic” — the only jazz artist on the Philadelphia hip-hop band’s annual shindig.

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