In 2005, bassist Esperanza Spalding became the new, hot, ultra-fashionable musician on the New York jazz scene, and she won’t dissipate any time soon. In her case, the term “young lion” always seemed too austere. Spalding has been the subject of jazz magazine photo spreads, a fawning New Yorker profile, Gap ads, and glowing critical encomiums. She toured with Stanley Clarke, Patti Austin, and Joe Lovano, and released two albums that fell comfortably in the “Latin jazz fusion” vein. Sex appeal notwithstanding, it’s easy to see why she drew in a mixed listenership. Spalding has vocal pipes to match her bass chops, and she sings in a raspy-voiced lilt that recalls the young Ella Fitzgerald. Her songs sound hip and contemporary.
This year’s Chamber Music Society is bolder, riskier, and more labored than her previous efforts, and it has what those albums lacked: A fully-developed concept. Here the bassist reconciles her classical roots with her interest in Latin fusion. The album’s opener, “Little Fly,” is an old-fashioned ballad, laden with fat, dreamy violin harmonies. Those chord changes prompt Spalding to sing in a different style: Smoother and more buttery than usual, like a high-voiced Judy Garland. Even more warbly is “Apple Blossom,” which features thick-accented guest vocals from Milton Nascimento. Both tracks are Spalding originals, as are most songs on Chamber Music Society. In all, it’s an elegant, layered, intensely studied album, as Spalding works to blend seemingly diffuse styles into a solid whole. She alternates the dense string sections with rubberband basslines, Latin polyrhythms, and long swaths of wordless scat. All that work pays dividends. Spalding may take risks, but she wastes not a moment on superficial experimentation. (Heads Up)
Esperanza Spalding Chamber Music Society performs at Davies Symphony Hall (201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco), in conjunction with the 28th San Francisco Jazz Festival. Sunday, October 10, 8 p.m. $30-$65. 866-920-5299, SFJAZZ.org