Thursday, March 18, 2010

Fresh Canela: Esperanza's Jazz

Esperanza Spalding at Arts NC State

Forget the hair. Forget the hype. Forget those ads she did for Banana Republic, and her three (so far) concerts at the White House. Forget everything you've heard about Esperanza Spalding. Close your eyes, and hear her music: grooving, unpredictable, out on a limb, filled with so much yearning, so much love, and so much freedom.

If I sound like a convert, I am; I didn’t own the Esperanza album going in to the concert in Stewart Theatre Friday, but I laid my $20 down to take it home that night.

Spalding’s pure jazz vocals alone would be enough to make her a career. But she does something unprecedented. I don't think any artist has ever controlled both the foundational bass, and upper melodic registers at the same time. (There's Meshell Ndegeocello, but she raps more than she sings, and doesn't have Spalding's ethereal range.)

But Spalding's more than a novelty, that’s certain, and much more than just a singer who plays bass (or vice versa). She’s an impressive composer who has put together an original sound with her prodigiously talented band of fellow Berklee grads. Featured on this short North Carolina tour: Argentinian keyboardist Leo Genovese, Brazilian guitarist Ricardo Vogt, and drummer Gerald Cleaver of Detroit. No embattled egos jockeying for solo position, no dominating displays of post-bop prowess, just there to serve the music.

When Spalding took the stage, her lowkey greeting morphed imperceptibly into performance, as the piano and drums began to move beneath her spoken words. Without warning, she unfolded her wings and flew into a soaring Betty Carter lyric: "Jazz ain't nothing but soul." By now, the entire room was at her feet, where it remained for the rest of the night.

In case you’re wondering, Spalding alternated between playing electric bass, and a travel-sized upright double bass. The understated, but wired-in Vogt played guitar only on selected numbers. I wouldn’t have known this was only Cleaver’s second appearance with Spalding; he didn’t overplay the drums, but brought them out of hiding when the music called for it, giving Spalding cause to head-bob approvingly.

Genovese, who leads his own band called The Chromatic Gauchos, seemed like Spalding’s most essential collaborator, through the subtle and inventive use of five keyboards at his fingertips: grand piano, melodica (to mimick harmonica and bandoneon), computer (crunchy noise samples), Fender Rhodes and Electro Nord 2 organ. The two sometimes duo’ed on Genovese’s bizarro Argentine folk jazz compositions, as Spalding toyed with the degradation of vocal pitch.

“We’re not normal,” said Spalding. Thank goodness for that.

Who knows how management will try to mold this rising star, who is managed by the same Spanish company that handles Omara Portuondo and other Cuban artists; local advanced press interviews were tightly restricted, though Spalding herself seemed surprisingly willing to sit for over an hour signing post-concert autographs and posing with fans. Her encore included two new songs, ending on the same soulful groove where she started with "Cinnamon Tree." This catchy R&B joint suggests she has the crossover potential of an Erykah Badu. I left the theater with its refrain in my ears, already waiting for the next album to come out.

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