The Harmonic Universe of Esperanza Spalding


Words by Darren TYNAN

There are occasions where language falls short in adequately conveying beautiful experiences. Multi-instrumentalist jazz musician Esperanza Spalding’s sophomore album, Esperanza, is such an aural journey that it defies description.

When prodigious musicians grace the planet, coupling their abilities with a dedication to their art, the world soon knows about it.

Growing up in a multi-lingual household in Portland, Oregon, Spalding showed bewildering talent at an early age, inspired by classical cellist Yo Yo Ma when she was four. It would seem as though this sudden revelation would shape her entire musical career.

‘It was definitely the thing that hipped me to the whole idea of music as a creative pursuit’, Spalding said.

Teaching herself violin, Esperanza had elevated to concertmaster for The Chamber Music Society of Oregon by the time she was 15, a community orchestra open to adults and children. In another prodigious sense, after three years of intense study, she became an instructor at the prestigious Berklee College of Music at the imponderably young age of 20.

Esperanza, a 2008 release, marks her debut as a solo artist, and unsurprisingly, it went on to become the best-selling album by a new international jazz artist in the same year. While there have been three additions to her discography since this release, it would seem a perfect place to begin, as she marks her independence and autonomy as bandleader.

The album is a pulsating soundscape of seemingly endless breadth. As bassist and singer, Esperanza’s multi-lingual approach to singing oozes a warm, hypnotic quality that is matched by her astounding physical beauty. English, Portuguese and Spanish vocals are scattered throughout the album, and it’s undeniable that each musician in the band is virtuosic in their own right. Spacious piano improvisations, spellbinding classical guitar, Brazilian rhythm and gloriously catchy walking bass lines are dispersed throughout the album.

Critic Kevin Le Gendre reflected on Esperanza’s band, saying, ‘There is no end of chordal finesse, finely wrought melodies, subtle but nonetheless hard-edged rhythmic pulsation, and above all a glowing sound canvas’.

Not atypical to the mastery of jazz musicians, the instrumental discourse of the album is never predictable and begs for repeated listening. Unlike the occasionally surging chaos of iconic experimental jazz albums such as Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, there is a kind of restraint shown which allows for an unpredictable yet structured sense of call and response. While such albums may seem cluttered or dissonant, at times lacking the sense of ‘release’ that allows musical tension to be provocative, the album Esperanza has a perfect balance of harmony and dissonance, instrumental chaos and negative space.

A highlight of the album is the song Mela, a seven minute long display of harmonic richness. Esperanza’s brilliance in jazz scatting is most evident toward the end of the song, and at times you may wonder how such vocal expansion is possible. Esperanza’s abilities show an amazing dynamic range here; she has precise control of phrasing, pitch changes, timbre and an endless sea of expressive qualities. It seems so boundless that it should exceed the capacity of vocal expression.

Esperanza is a harmonically enriching journey into musical sublimity. It exceeds the parameters of simply being called ‘jazz’, because there are so many different influences and genres at work. It is an album that presents so many interesting harmonic ideas that it could easily represent a life-time of listening; each track is a rigorous musical study in itself. Esperanza, now in her late twenties, has already accomplished so much as a musician. What could we possibly expect next?


Live Esperanza – Nourish your soul
Official Homepage – For all your Esperanza needs


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