Centuries ago, long before the advent of radio or recording technology, chamber music was the music for the masses – the music in which people from nearly every segment of society could find meaning and relevance. A decade into the 21st century, Esperanza Spalding – the bassist, vocalist and composer who first appeared on the jazz scene in 2008 – takes a contemporary approach to this once universal form of entertainment with Chamber Music Society, her August 17, 2010, release on Heads Up International, a division of Concord Music Group.
Backed by drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and pianist Leo Genovese – and inspired by the classical training of her younger years – Esperanza creates a modern chamber music group that combines the spontaneity and intrigue of improvisation with sweet and angular string trio arrangements. The result is a sound that weaves the innovative elements of jazz, folk and world music into the enduring foundations of classical music.
“So much of my early musical experience was spent playing chamber music on the violin, and it’s a form of music that I’ve always loved,” says Esperanza. “I was very inspired by a lot of classical music, and chamber music in particular. I’m intrigued by the concept of intimate works that can be played and experienced among friends in an intimate setting. So I decided to create my version of contemporary chamber music, and add one more voice to that rich history.”
Chamber Music Society is a place where connoisseurs of classical music and jazz devotees – and fans of other musics as well – can find common ground. The recording offers a chamber music for modern times – one that brings together people of different perspectives and broadens their cultural experience, just as it did in an earlier age.
Esperanza first took the world by storm in 2008 with her self-titled Heads Up debut recording that spent more than 70 weeks on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz Chart. Two years later, she continues to push the boundaries of jazz and explore the places where it intersects with other genres. Co-produced by Esperanza and Gil Goldstein, Chamber Music Society surrounds Esperanza with a diverse assembly of musicians. At the core are pianist Leo Genovese, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and percussionist Quintino Cinalli. The string trio is comprised of violinist Entcho Todorov, violist Lois Martin, cellist David Eggar and Gretchen Parlato on voice. The great Milton Nascimento also makes a guest appearance on one track.
“Gil is really a master at integrating a sound that caters to string instruments,” says Esperanza. “I’ve learned so much from working with him, and I’ve gained confidence in my abilities as an arranger and producer as well.”
The set opens with “Little Fly,” a quiet and melodic piece in which Esperanza sets a poem by William Blake to music. Throughout the piece, Esperanza’s vocals merge seamlessly with her own bass as well as the string trio that surrounds it.
Inspired by the creation story in the Old Testament, the multi-layered and structurally intriguing “Knowledge of Good and Evil” was actually written several years ago, Esperanza explains. She later wrote a preliminary string arrangement for the work, which Goldstein later embellished. “The song is very circular, and the transitions between the emotions captured in the major and minor parts are intentionally ambiguous,” says Esperanza. “The melody doesn’t allow you to catch them, even though it repeats itself. It’s like the story of the Garden of Eden. The openness to many different interpretations is what makes it so compelling.”
The taut and percussive “Really Very Small” is another piece from Esperanza’s vault of earlier material that derives new life from a string arrangement she subsequently added to it. “As I remember, the song came out of me all at once when I wrote it,” she says. “When you play it on piano, it’s a little funky harmonically, but it lays in a logical way. I was listening to a lot of world music around that time, and I was interested in the idea of having two time signatures in the same song. The melody is basically in 6/8, and it sits on top of this 7/8 accompaniment.”
The lilting “Apple Blossom,” featuring the legendary Milton Nascimento is reminiscent of a folk song. “The challenge in arranging this song was integrating the strings into the piece, but in such a way as to keep them from taking over – allowing them to be part of the work, but not in the way of it,” says Esperanza. “ Milton is one of my musical heroes. He’s always inspired me to follow my own voice, in terms of writing, singing and playing. If there’s anyone who’s close to what I want to be musically, it would be him. I feel like this record is blessed because of his presence and contribution.”
In the final stretch, “Inútil Paisagem” is built around a gentle but complex vocal interplay between Esperanza and Gretchen Parlato, with little more than a repeating bass line and Parlato’s subtle hand percussion to underscore the dual voices. The quiet and poignant “Short and Sweet,” lays Esperanza’s vocals in a lush bed of piano and strings, resulting in a dreamlike experience that ends the set on an almost mystical note.
But this is no dream. It is the work of a brilliant young musical talent who isn’t afraid to challenge the limits of jazz and its relationship to other forms of musical expression. Chamber Music Society is the first of two current Esperanza projects. Radio Music Society, set for release in the spring of 2011, features an exciting new repertoire of funk, hip-hop, and rock elements fused into songs that are free from genre.
“I’m confident that this music will touch people,” she says of Chamber Music Society. “We all want to hear sincerity and originality in music, and anyone can recognize and appreciate when love and truth are transmitted through art. No matter what else has or hasn’t been achieved on this recording, those things are definitely a part of this music. Those are the things I really want to deliver.”