Last month, covering the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, I said this about bassist Esperanza Spalding:
24-year-old Esperanza Spalding’s star is rising….It’s not hard to see why, since she’s even more talented than she is charming and self-confident.
But she’s also callow. Spalding’s dexterous bass playing was completely overshadowed last night by her singing…challenging her own statement that bass is her focus and singing is a lark. Unfortunately, her singing needs work; she subserviated it so much to the rhythm, reciting fast and indistinctly, that the lyrics lost too much meaning.
I stand by all of the above. But Spalding nonetheless does consider herself a bassist first, and that work deserves a fair shake when her singing isn’t in the way. That opportunity came today, when Spalding backed trumpeter Nicholas Payton at the Mall and proved herself not only dexterous but exceptional.
The revealing moment came in the quartet’s performance of Monk’s “Straight No Chaser,” which (per Payton’s recent MO) was rendered as fractured jazz fusion. When pianist Taylor Eigsti (whose acoustic grand sounded remarkably like a Fender Rhodes electric) stretched the beat out grandiosely, expanding and contracting at will as though it were elastic, Spalding (and drummer Karriem Riggins) easily followed him.
But Spalding’s sense of rhythm proved even more elastic: close listening found her mostly centered on the beat, but slipping frequently to the front (i.e., striking the strings just before the drummer’s timekeeping beat) with no apparent effort or loss of time. Her solo was even more agile, supporting complex harmonies and propelling from swinging eighth notes to four-to-the-bar quarters, to triplets, and even into unerringly graceful sixteenths.
It wasn’t a fluke, either. On the opening “Backward Step,” she played a busy line—-perhaps too busy—-that nonetheless reinforced both Karriem and Eigsti, and demonstrated a smooth, flawless fingering technique. “Triptych” found her moving just behind the beat, with an imaginative groove that may have been the only motion in a very static tune.
It’s also worth noting, however, that Spalding acted as backing singer for Payton on “Backward Step,” her high, flutelike voice doubling his untrained baritone. This might be her forte as a singer—-or perhaps she might follow Payton’s example of the occasional lead vocal. Still, Spalding is already one of the finest bassists of her generation; she couldn’t make a smarter choice than to stay that course with rigor.