One evening last summer, the precociously gifted bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding made her network television debut on Late Night With David Letterman. Front and center with her upright bass, she seemed a straightforward vision of self-assurance. But there was a note of sly reproach to her lyrics in “Precious,” one of the R&B-infused originals from her self-titled first Heads Up release. “You love the way I fit some ideal,” she sang, breezily but evenly. “Not the real woman you’ve yet to understand.”
Watching the clip now as then, I can’t help but fixate on that complaint, lodged within Spalding’s first 20 seconds on camera. And I can’t help but notice the fawning reaction of her host when the song cruises to a close. “Oh, my gosh; that was wonderful!” Letterman cries, more effusive than usual, while clasping Spalding’s hand. Without relaxing his grip, he turns to his bandleader, Paul Shaffer. “You were absolutely right, Paul: the coolest person we’ve ever had on the show. Beautiful!” Then comes a creaky parody of chivalry, as Dave lifts Esperanza’s wrist to bestow a kiss.