From the very first track on her 2006 debut, Junjo, Esperanza Spalding can be heard playing bass and singing, making a coherent case for the essential role of both in her art. With the Cuban-born musicians Aruán Ortiz (piano) and Francisco Mela (drums), she proves herself not only a jazz player of top rank, but a highly individual singer whose voice serves more than one function in the band. She could scat the most intricate lines one moment and put across an intimate lyric the next—her self-accompanied Spanish on “Cantora de Yala” by Argentine composer Gustavo “Cuchi” Leguizamón is a highlight here, as is the clean, lightning-quick melody of “Loro” by Brazilian master Egberto Gismonti.
And yet Junjo offers only a hint of what was to come for Spalding: a 2011 Grammy Award for Best New Artist; a command performance at the White House for the Obamas; a string of innovative concept albums with a more electric, funk-oriented sound (2016’s Emily’s D+Evolution, 2017’s Exposure, 2018’s 12 Little Spells); and an opera collaboration with Wayne Shorter called Iphigenia. But Junjo also planted the seed for all that with its vibrant mix of originals and classic repertoire. Spalding and cohorts lead off with a hip remake of the Jimmy Rowles ballad “The Peacocks,” followed by “Loro” and Chick Corea’s “Humpty Dumpty.” The rest of the program, apart from “Cantora de Yala,” is original: “Junjo” and “Two Bad” are varied Spalding compositions, while “Perazuán” is an improvised piano-vocal duet and “Mompouana” is an appetizing Ortiz creation for the trio, likely an homage to Catalan composer Federico Mompou. “Perazela” closes it out with a drum-vocal impromptu, a brief coda to an album that might have been mistaken for a straightforward acoustic jazz date at the time, but turned out to be so much more.