There is a lot to be impressed by here - in terms of the playing, compositions and arrangements. This is obviously a companion piece to Chamber Music Society
. But these two album are very different. The "chamber" album was all acoustic and lightly orchestrated - it was gentle music inspired by nature.
This album however, has moments of chamber music calm, but generally it is funkier, with Spalding's own funky, electric bass lines to the fore. For any bass players, she is compulsive listening and the bass propels a lot of tracks into Jazz/Funk workouts that are complex and tricky.
Wayne Shorter's "Endangered Species" is a stand-out funky take on a Jazz original with added lyrics and great playing all round. Terri Lyne Carrington on drums is a great partner in the rhythm section and their intuitive musical relationship promises a lot.
The other memorable and radio-friendly tune here is Stevie Wonder's "I Can't Help it" - written for Michael Jackson; here it is Jazzier and trickier, but really stands out and Esperanza really makes it her own. But perhaps this is why I feel I can only give this 4 stars - the original compositions while clever and "difficult" are rarely memorable. Apart from "Black Gold", they impress with their musicianship, but the substance is not always there.
Most tracks have great playing from a big cast of great Jazz musicians and about half the tracks are arranged for a big band which is almost like a small orchestra. Textures and dynamic contrasts abound - but in the end they can't make up for a memorable tune and it is the arrangements of other people's tunes which really stand out.
I see no problem with this and I hope that future albums see more like this and as Jazz musicians have done for decades - shaping something new out of existing material. I would also like to have had more improvised passages where the great musicians could stretch out - there is a lot of arranged material here and it shows that Esperanza Spalding has put in a lot of work here - but I enjoyed the parts where the musicians were allowed more freedom.
Maybe in future the albums could be less about the skill and the amount of work that has gone into it and more about just playing, just going for it? No doubt she is a great player and arranger, who has worked incredibly hard on her craft. I loved large parts of this album and many tracks are radio-friendly and could get a big crossover audience beyond Jazz. But I feel we still have the best of Esperanza Spalding to come and I for one, will be watching with interest.