Thursday, March 18, 2010

Fresh Canela: Esperanza's Jazz

Esperanza Spalding at Arts NC State

Forget the hair. Forget the hype. Forget those ads she did for Banana Republic, and her three (so far) concerts at the White House. Forget everything you've heard about Esperanza Spalding. Close your eyes, and hear her music: grooving, unpredictable, out on a limb, filled with so much yearning, so much love, and so much freedom.

If I sound like a convert, I am; I didn’t own the Esperanza album going in to the concert in Stewart Theatre Friday, but I laid my $20 down to take it home that night.

Spalding’s pure jazz vocals alone would be enough to make her a career. But she does something unprecedented. I don't think any artist has ever controlled both the foundational bass, and upper melodic registers at the same time. (There's Meshell Ndegeocello, but she raps more than she sings, and doesn't have Spalding's ethereal range.)

But Spalding's more than a novelty, that’s certain, and much more than just a singer who plays bass (or vice versa). She’s an impressive composer who has put together an original sound with her prodigiously talented band of fellow Berklee grads. Featured on this short North Carolina tour: Argentinian keyboardist Leo Genovese, Brazilian guitarist Ricardo Vogt, and drummer Gerald Cleaver of Detroit. No embattled egos jockeying for solo position, no dominating displays of post-bop prowess, just there to serve the music.

When Spalding took the stage, her lowkey greeting morphed imperceptibly into performance, as the piano and drums began to move beneath her spoken words. Without warning, she unfolded her wings and flew into a soaring Betty Carter lyric: "Jazz ain't nothing but soul." By now, the entire room was at her feet, where it remained for the rest of the night.

In case you’re wondering, Spalding alternated between playing electric bass, and a travel-sized upright double bass. The understated, but wired-in Vogt played guitar only on selected numbers. I wouldn’t have known this was only Cleaver’s second appearance with Spalding; he didn’t overplay the drums, but brought them out of hiding when the music called for it, giving Spalding cause to head-bob approvingly.

Genovese, who leads his own band called The Chromatic Gauchos, seemed like Spalding’s most essential collaborator, through the subtle and inventive use of five keyboards at his fingertips: grand piano, melodica (to mimick harmonica and bandoneon), computer (crunchy noise samples), Fender Rhodes and Electro Nord 2 organ. The two sometimes duo’ed on Genovese’s bizarro Argentine folk jazz compositions, as Spalding toyed with the degradation of vocal pitch.

“We’re not normal,” said Spalding. Thank goodness for that.

Who knows how management will try to mold this rising star, who is managed by the same Spanish company that handles Omara Portuondo and other Cuban artists; local advanced press interviews were tightly restricted, though Spalding herself seemed surprisingly willing to sit for over an hour signing post-concert autographs and posing with fans. Her encore included two new songs, ending on the same soulful groove where she started with "Cinnamon Tree." This catchy R&B joint suggests she has the crossover potential of an Erykah Badu. I left the theater with its refrain in my ears, already waiting for the next album to come out.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Bio Ritmo busts forth: advance single "Verguenza" is available online now for FREE Listen; download it for a buck.

They're hoping for 5,000 downloads to help finance release of the whole album, most (if not all) of which has already been laid down in a Richmond recording studio.

Jump on this puppy; let me know what you think.

Listen/Download Link

You may recall this live version of "Verguenza" (scroll down to second video) I recorded two months ago.


As a bonus, here are some vintage pics I dug up of Bio Ritmo from a concert on December 17, 2004! The venue was Bogart's in Raleigh.

click on to see larger...

Bio Ritmo 12/17/04

Bio Ritmo 12/17/04

Bio Ritmo 12/17/04

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Esperanza in NC

Buzz is great for Esperanza Spalding in Raleigh this Friday (3/5); online ticket sales are at their highest, says Arts NC State marketing director Mark Tulbert. Spalding was so busy, she didn't have time to do advance interviews for the local press. But does she really have to? The 25-year-old has played Barack Obama's White House three times already. At age 20, the Portland native became the youngest ever instructor at Berklee, her alma mater, where she had earned a full scholarship at age 16. Crazy.

Yes, she is crazy gorgeous, and crazy talented. I tried to suss out her Hispanic heritage, if any, to go with the name and Spanish/Brazilian vocals. Her mother has some Hispanic background, but according to the Wiki gods, she learned Spanish from a Cuban nanny. The way she sings and plays bass in an interlocking, polyrhythmic groove definitely feels Latin to me, at times, as Latin as the Stevie Wonder tunes she covers. (Some of my earliest exposure to Latin music was through Stevie Wonder. If you get what I mean, you get what I mean.)

Photo by Johann Sauty

There are still some tickets left, in the reasonable price grade of $24. Of her 3 dates in NC, Asheville got snowed out; Kinston is on for tonight. Hope comes to the Stewart Theatre this Friday.

Pre-Concert Talk with bassist John Brown, head of Duke's Jazz Program, at 6:45 pm, Walnut Room, also in the Talley Student Center.

WHAT: Esperanza Spalding
WHERE: Stewart Theatre, Talley Student Center, NCSU (Raleigh)
WHEN: Friday (3/5), 8 pm

Concert Website:

Facebook event page:!/event.php?eid=365830668898&ref=nf

Monday, March 1, 2010

Wine Bar Descarga

After Saturday's concert, UNC jazz students and faculty jammed with guests at the West End Wine Bar on Franklin Street.

Ivan Renta
Jason Foureman and Ivan Renta

This tune with a Latin vibe is Horace Silver's "Nica's Dream."

Pt. 1: Ivan Renta (sax), UNC Jazz director Jim Ketch (trumpet).

Pt. 2: Joe Poran (sax), Ramon Ortiz (tambora) and Jason Marsalis (drums).

Also performing: Jake Higgins (piano), Andy Warwick (guitar), Jason Foureman (bass).

Ivan Renta
Ivan Renta and Ramon Ortiz

Grand Band

The UNC Jazz Band joined forces with the Charanga Carolina Saturday night, for the first time, with some new arrangements for the combined ensemble. Ivan Renta and Jason Marsalis, artists-in-residence at the Carolina Jazz Festival, were featured soloists. Renta brought a number of Chico O'Farrill charts with him, and the big band led off with "Havana Blues." Marsalis, a founding member of Los Hombres Calientes, did some impressive drumming in 6/8 on a Latin jazz number, but stuck mostly to vibes. He even snuck in a reference to the Star Trek opening theme in his vibes solo on "The Nearness of You." Inside joke?

Jason Marsalis, Charanga

Earlier in the day, Jason and Ivan gave a masterclass at an open rehearsal with the combined ensemble. A couple of pics (click on any to see larger):

rehearsal masterclass

rehearsal masterclass

rehearsal masterclass

Ivan Renta
has been to the Triangle a few times before; I first met him in 2005, with Chembo Corniel's five-piece Grupo Chaworo, at the old Exploris during the travelling Latin Jazz exhibition from the Smithsonian. He came to Memorial Hall for the first time the following year, with the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra led by Arturo O'Farrill. From the ancient, mineral hotsprings town of Coamo, Puerto Rico, the 29-year-old has been a leading sideman since his teens, when he moved to New York and began gigging with Eddie Palmieri and others.

Ivan Renta with UNC Jazz Band

The Jazz Band sounded really great, under the irrepressible leadership of Jim Ketch. But I admit I could hardly wait to hear David Garcia lead the Charanga and combined ensembles in the second half. Here are videos in full of the 3 new numbers they did, arranged for charanga and big band together.

"Pide Que Lo Toque" - a gem! Ivan plays a vintage German "Krebs" flute with a plastic mouthpiece, with an unusual Cuban provenance. These were once in common use in Cuba, and according to Ivan, while the middle range is nothing special, it really pops out the high notes which are favored in charanga. This very flute once belonged to the inimitable Richard Egües of Orquesta Aragon; Egües exchanged instruments with Mario Rivera in 1978, when the two recorded together in Cuba on the Tipica 73 album Intercambio Cultural. The flute came to Ivan recently following the passing of Mario Rivera in 2007. The first flute solo features Charanga flutist Caity Bunch; then Jason Marsalis takes a vibes solo; Ivan Renta plays the second flute solo about 4 min. in to the video.

"La Justicia" - Jaime Roman sings lead on this Papa Molina merengue cover. Funny lyrics! You hardly ever hear these old school, big band-era merengues anymore, with saxes doing the guajeos:

- a classic, Tito Puente cha cha cha, with vibes solo by Marsalis and Renta again on sax/flute:

The night wasn't over yet. See more videos from the post-show jam session at West End Wine Bar, here.