Esperanza Spalding carries the weight of expectation of America’s jazz community on her shoulders. The 26-year-old singer and bassist was famously appointed a professor at Berklee College of Music at just 20 and is fast consolidating a reputation as one of the hardest working artists in the business. That she can sing while improvising is an impressive feat of coordination. That she also has a natural ear and compositional flair makes her a sensation.
Everything about Spalding – her tough upbringing, her unique musical ability, her striking height and afro, and that name of course – has given her a prominence that transcends the low-key world of jazz. Yet for all her star quality Spalding remains an enigmatic figure. She’s recorded albums of Brazilian music and string-based jazz – albums with impeccable performances of expertly composed tunes – but her character, identity even, seems to hover at an arm’s length.
She is aloof in the flesh too. Aside from naming her band she didn’t speak a word during her London Jazz Festival appearance. A welcome theatrically made this charming rather than offensive. Following a solo support set from pianist Zoe Rahman, Spalding entered stage-right in total darkness as her string trio played the opening chords. An old fashioned standing lamp lit up and she went through a homecoming ritual: wine was poured and shoes taken off. Then it was time to play. The ritual was reversed at the end of the show, nicely bookending the gig and maintaining the hint of mystique.
Musically though, any air of mystery about Spalding was blown out of the water in this astounding concert. Featuring material from her most recent Gil Goldstein-produced album, Chamber Music Society, Spalding played with the invention and abandon that she seems to rein in on her discs. She went completely off the reservation with her improvising and let her virtuosity shine in all its glorious technicolour.
Supported by the instrumental forces from Chamber Music Society – a fluid line-up of string trio, piano, drums and back-up vocals – Spalding presided over a well-drilled band. Her ballads (opener ‘Little Fly’) were subtly accompanied, while on the instrumental-focused tracks (‘Knowledge of Good & Evil’), all musicians pitched in with dexterous ensemble playing.
She may not be an autocrat but Spalding was still the absolute focus of this long set. Her astonishing prowess as a bassist, vocalist and composer demands prolonged attention. The high voice – her scatting sometimes reached into the stratosphere – blends wonderfully with deep sonority of the bass. Particular highlights were ‘Wild is the Wind’, a soulful song made famous by Nina Simone and ‘Inutil Paisagem’, a Spanish number that saw Spalding duetting in close harmony with vocalist Gretchen Parlato.
It was the spell-binding results of this piece rather that the scatting and improv work-outs that got the biggest cheer from the packed QEH. But this reviewer’s highpoint was a Spalding original, ‘Apple Blossom’, a song-story about death, the seasons and renewal. She sang it seated and in some more perfectly timed theatre, reached down to caress the floor as she described “her body [that] lies beneath the apple blossoms”.
Esperanza Spalding performs at the Barbican in April 2011.