On the coldest night of the year enough people bought advance tickets Esperanza Spalding’s show was moved to the larger of The Egg’s two theaters. A comfortable-looking chair, lamp and table supporting a flower vase and bottle of red wine were set on a rug in front of the lowered curtain at the start of show. Fresh from recent performances with Joe Lovano (who performs at The Egg this Sunday), Spalding sauntered out onto this living room scene and slowly took off her scarf, coat and high-heels. After she poured a glass of wine she raised it to the crowd as her accompanying string trio of violinist Sara Caswell, violist Lois Martin and cellist Jodi Redhage began the first tune from behind the curtain.
“Little Fly”, the opening track from her third album of mostly original compositions “Chamber Music Society,” showed the audience what was in store that evening with Esperanza’s voice soaring before she even began pedaling the open E string on her bass. Each song from the record was performed Sunday evening – if you don’t own it yet go buy a copy!
Spalding made transitions between lower and upper registers – with both her voice and upright bass – seem effortless as the audience could see her exploring the full range of her bass all night. Her solid bass playing and risk-taking improvisations alone would give hope to a bright musical future for her, but Esperanza is a musical triple threat – bassist, vocalist and composer. When playing only the role of bassist, she would let herself sway freely as she played – eyes closed, head bobbing side to side, totally absorbed in the music.
Esperanza’s voice is sweet and round, with every note precisely in tune no matter how near or far the interval. She doesn’t often use lyrics, often just singing improvised syllables such as “la” in beautiful counterpoint with vocalist Leala Vogt. But when she does ask “Are We Really Small?” the audience wonders along with her. Spalding sat to sing the final tune of the first set “Apple Blossom” and seemed to be telling a story to invisible family members seated around her at one point touching the floor in front of her with her hand.
It may be her compositional skills for which she’ll be remembered long after our time. Blending genres as easily as she sings counter lines to her bass playing, it comes off as natural, never forced, as if all along classical music and instrumentation should share jazz phrasing and improvisatory nature. Bach and Mozart would compose, perform and improvise with little effort, so it’s nothing new, but refreshing to witness nonetheless. The pacing of dynamic contrast and use of space within each of her works demonstrates a musical maturity well beyond her 20-something years on this planet, yet she retains the playfulness of a child as Spalding drums on the shoulder of her bass to begin
“Chacarera” along with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington.
Never overpowering the band but powerful when musical climaxes were near, Carrington got downright funky when the tune required a strong backbeat. She plays with the sensitivity required by the acoustic instruments sharing the stage, and this is one of the reasons she can be seen performing with the greatest jazz musicians of the modern era.
The Sunday evening audience was respectful and mostly applauded between each of the songs. Eventually, as happens in jazz rooms, noteworthy solos would be recognized by applause mid-tune once the crowd realized it would only enhance, not intrude upon the music. Pianist Leonardo Genovese rounded out the group, filling as much or little space as he desired. His use of melodica provided a nice textural change and another voice often dancing around the vocals. After reaching to his left for a Rhodes during the second set and not getting much response through the house system, Genovese only returned to it during “What A Friend.”
The string trio provided many themes while performing Gil Golstein’s arrangements and showcased some fine solo and improvisatory chops throughout the two-hour concert. Switching frequently between smooth arco passages and jagged pizzicato lines, they each seemed to enjoy the musicianship exuded by the bandleader as much as the audience did. Spalding would guide the group to the final notes of a piece with a nod of her head, hair bouncing with life.
The pure sounds of Esperanza Spalding’s voice carried through the theater sending different chills than those provided by the frigid temperatures, dancing around upper registers with more grace than a snowflake in no rush to touch the earth.
Review by Michael Lawrence, bassist and music educator in the Capital Region
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Mike Hotter’s review at Nippertown.com