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Bassist Spalding knows how to sing and swing

By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | October 25, 2005

Recent Berklee graduate (and current Berklee instructor) Esperanza Spalding headlined Scullers for the first time Thursday, leading a talented quartet through a mix of covers and originals that served notice: This is a uniquely gifted star on the rise.

Spalding's instrument is the upright bass, unusual for a woman in itself. More unheard of still is that she sings while she plays, and sings well. Her work on bass, meanwhile, is even better while soloing and laying down support. Spalding doesn't merely hold down the bottom and help keep time; her fingers dance continuously as she inventively guides her musicians through their paces.

She opened with a freewheeling piece called "The Sorcerer," then moved on to two originals: one an energetic aural portrait of her drummer, Francisco Mela, featuring Spalding's sweet-sounding wordless vocals; the other a love song with English lyrics, which Spalding explained to the audience was really about procrastinating while writing a song.

At that point she put down her bass, Mela and pianist Leo Genovese exited the stage, and Spalding sang a hornlike, intricate duet with guitarist Rick Peckham on the Brazilian choro tune "Um a Zero." The others then trooped back onstage, and Spalding grabbed her bass for a splendid reading of Chick Corea's "You're Everything."

On acoustic piano through most of the evening, Genovese showed maturity beyond his years. He emphasized careful plotting in his solos instead of playing lots of notes though he proved he could do that, too, in the group's lickety-split race through "Autumn Leaves." Peckham was impeccable on guitar. Mela, like Peckham, a Berklee faculty-mate of Spalding's, seemed happy to eschew soloing in favor of keeping time, to judge by his near-constant smile.

Other highlights included a slow, sad interpretation of Jobim's "Retrato em Branco e Preto," sung by Spalding in Portuguese, and the instrumental, "I Adore You."

"I just wrote it," said Spalding of the latter, "and it's so killing." She then laughed at her apparent immodesty and explained that she meant that she loves the way her band plays it.

That charmingly girlish enthusiasm, equal parts bubbly and hip, is something you don't see much of in jazz. One more reason that Spalding is a performer to watch.

© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
© Bill Beuttler