Monday, February 22, 2010

Music review: Spalding shows she's a rising force in jazz

Esperanza Spalding. (Photo by Johann Sauty)

By Greg Stepanich

No one who attended Saturday night's show at the Duncan Theatre by the rising young jazz bassist and composer Esperanza Spalding could have any doubt about her talent.

The Portland, Ore., native is a striking presence on the stage, slim and tallish, with a mountain of very cool hair that she had to tie up and get out of her eyes after the first couple songs with her backing trio. She played an aggressive, high-energy evening of largely original songs from her most recent album (Esperanza), music of complex harmonies, busy melodies and strong but not overwhelmingly tricky rhythms.

Spalding also has a powerful voice that nevertheless is relatively light; when she belted in her higher registers, she tended to sing under pitch, but the softer side of her vocalizing was most appealing. She switched from a short-bodied double bass to bass guitar depending on the song, and demonstrated in both cases an exceptionally strong left hand that hammered out lines and solos with great clarity.

Indeed, one of the best things about her bass playing, particularly on the acoustic instrument, is the melodic character of her solos. In the very first song, Betty Carter's Jazz (Ain't Nothin' but Soul), she crafted a solo with a slowly climbing, triplet-heavy melody on the G string that climbed excitingly into the stratosphere. She did some bowing, too, in the middle of her nearly two hours on stage, but more typical was how she set up songs by laying down a crisp introductory rhythm, as she did when going into a lovely version of Milton Nascimento's Ponta de Areia.

As a way of introducing Precious, a much more pop-like song about a woman standing up for being just who she is despite her lover's complaints (But all you got was me/And that's all that I can be/I'm sorry if it let you down). Spalding joked amiably about getting Christina Aguilera or Britney Spears to sing the song, thus bringing in massive royalty checks. She said she wrote the song intending it to be a radio smash, but "my jazz brain kept leaking over into my pop brain" as she wrote it, thus ostensibly sinking its salability.

But many a big dollar has been made from pop songs rooted in extensive jazz vocabularies: Donald Fagen, Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell, to name three, have successfully melded the two styles for fun and profit, and frankly, Precious comes close to that lucrative road. Like several of her other performances Saturday night, her rendition of Precious was much more forceful live than on record, and that made it far more emotional.

Spalding also played several other originals, including her next-best song after Precious, I Know You Know, with its catchy, giddy chorus, as well as She Got to You and Cinnamon Tree, a newer song with a nice chorus that again suggested pop-rock territory.

Spalding is backed by a fine trio of musicians: Pianist Leo Genovese, guitarist Ricardo Vogt, and drummer John Davis. Genovese, Spalding and Vogt traded impressive solos easily all night, and drummer Davis favors a deep-voiced, hard-edged kind of drum work that was propulsive and committed.

The only real downside to the concert was its lack of subtlety, which is odd considering the sophistication of this music. Most of the songs received full-on, loud, driving performances, which on the one hand was interesting because the band was trying so hard not to offer a traditional jazz concert, with its obligatory moments of reflective wispiness. But on the other, some of this music needs a gentler approach to make its full impact, and variety along that line would not have come amiss.

Also, Spalding would make a stronger impact with a couple more really good songs: her White House performance of Wonder's Overjoyed, for instance, is a good example of how her gifts, in particular her flair for arranging, can bring a truly fresh take to a beautifully crafted song. Spalding's own composing no doubt will continue to grow from its already considerable strength, but in the meantime some veteran material would enrich her set lists.

Then again, for her encore before a full house at the Duncan, she led an audience singalong in an 11-note riff from I Adore You, then put on a face of mock depression when the crowd couldn't repeat the 32 bars or so of scat that followed. As the audience filed out, plenty of them could be heard still singing the riff, proof enough of the power of her music, and of her remarkable talent, to reach a group of receptive, eager ears.

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