As evidenced by her self-titled 2008 debut, Esperanza Spalding is a quadruple threat as composer, bassist, singer, and producer. That album spent an astonishing 70 weeks on Billboard's contemporary jazz chart, and was the best-selling album by a new artist internationally for that calendar year. Given its critical and commercial success, a follow-up can exert so much pressure internally and externally, that an artist loses her/his focus and the end result is less than stellar. Not so with Chamber Music Society. Spalding has assembled an intriguing collection of tunes, is accompanied by stellar backing musicians -- drummer Terri Lynne Carrington, pianist Leonardo Genovese, and percussionist Quintino Cinalli with a pair of string players -- and guests that reveal her exquisite taste in both compositions and arrangements (the latter with intermittent help from Gil Goldstein). The album opens with a Spalding composition to illustrate William Blake's poem "Little Fly"; her vocal is understated yet fully articulate. She is backed only by her bass and a graceful, small, unintrusive string section. "Winter Sun" is a standout with its fingerpopping breaks and a melodic nu-soul vocal that touches on scat with astute syncopation, and features taut, imaginative bass and piano solos. It walks the line between modern jazz and adult contemporary R&B . On Esperanza, she covered Milton Nascimento's "Ponta de Areia." Here, she ups the ante by duetting with the Brazilian artist on her own "Apple Blossom," backed by strings and Richard Vogt's nylon-string guitar. Nascimento's trademark baritone is allowed considerable improvisational freedom that features his otherworldly falsetto. Her reading of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Inutil Paisagem" almost forgoes samba entirely in favor of a more classically disciplined duet vocal arrangement, as Spalding's voice and bass are accompanied only by Gretchen Parlato's divine vocal. Parlato also appears with wordless singing on "Knowledge of Good and Evil," in a breezy yet complex chart that underscores a deft harmonic interaction with the band. Spalding's arrangement of Dimitri Tiomkin's and Ned Washington's classic "Wild Is the Wind" features David Eggar guesting on cello and Genovese playing melodica, and combines jazz, tango, and classic pop. "What a Friend" combines contemporary and Rhodes-driven soulful electric jazz. Chamber Music Society is a more sophisticated offering than Esperanza. That said, with its musical diversity, stylistic panache, humor, and soul, it's also a more enjoyable listen.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek