After reading a glowing profile in The New Yorker last spring and hearing about her guest spots with Prince and Joe Lovano, I admit I expected to be blown away last Sunday night at The Egg, when the Grammy-nominated singer and double bassist Esperanza Spalding graced us with her unique vision of classic jazz tempered with classical music. What I took away was an abundance of ambition which often overshadowed this artist’s still maturing compositional skills.
Things started promisingly, with Spalding taking a seat stage left to take her shoes off and sip a bit of red wine, proffering a toast to the audience afterwards – one of the more charming ways to open a performance by such a ballyhooed performer. The curtains then opened to reveal her band, the Chamber Music Society, built around the string section of Sara Caswell (violin), Lois Martin (viola) and Jody Redhage (cello). The group launched into a sinuous and wordless melodic excursion named “Knowledge of Good and Evil”, which featured plenty of scatting from the band leader. Spalding’s range and timbre is reminiscent of the constrained mezzo soprano of Diana Ross, a not so compelling voice to feature on such convoluted melodic flights. Things continued in much the same vein with “Little Fly” and “Really Very Small”, with Spalding using imagery of wind, leaves and insects to convey some sort of wind-blown motif, appropriate for one of the coldest nights this region has ever seen (outside the comfy confines of The Egg, temps were reaching down to -15F.)
While Spalding’s new batch of songs were not very compelling, Spalding’s band was impressive throughout, particularly the fiery playing of Caswell, Leonardo Genovese (piano) and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. After an interminable bass solo on “Short and Sweet”, Genovese and Carrington kicked the tune into overdrive, casting sparks off of each other with their spirited interplay. Spalding’s bass playing was solid but nothing extraordinary – when she took up the bow for a spell, it was even hard to hear her at certain points. Things then ground to a halt with “Apple Blossom,” which seemed to be an attempt at the serious whimsy of Joanna Newsom – unfortunately, like most of Spalding’s selections from her new album, the effect was cloying instead of touching.
Jazz, even more than most music, is often a puzzle to be figured out, as well an agreement between audience and musician – the listener needs to be willing to follow, but the musician has to give some incentive to ensure that the trip is worth making. Spalding’s music – or at least the selections she featured off her latest album – is full of novel melodic twists, but leaves little room for the listener to enter and get involved. It’s all indulgence without the payoff. That being said, I have a feeling Spalding will continue to grow as a musician and artist – hopefully, all the early praise won’t stunt the artistic growth of someone with the potential to someday join the greats.
Review by Mike Hotter
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Michael Eck’s review at The Times Union
Excerpt from David Singer’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Her bass playing is clean, melodic and subdued, as her singing can be. But more often than not her vocals are intense, passionate and reaching for the sky. Occasionally she built the vocals to a total scream, and it made sense in the music. She cares more about the song than the words. She barely uses syllables, even in her brief scats. Most of the time she’s humming, yelling – the beautiful kind – and chanting up and down the scales. ‘Little Fly’ didn’t even feel like a song. No tempo, no real melody most of the time, just a key. She brought her epic approach to a simple tune, and presented dramatic ranges for every line.”