Jazz review: Esperanza Spalding at the Broad Stage


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Esperanza Spalding knows jazz is a craggy mountain. Already much awarded, televised, elder-approved and Obama-endorsed at 25, the Oregonian bassist-singer could imagine her flag planted. But her septet’s Thursday performance at Santa Monica’s Broad Stage showed her to be a lighthearted striver.

A challenge: While cast as a youthful esperanza for a graybeard art, Spalding was playing chamber jazz in an upscale concert hall where few peers could budget a ducat. At concert’s start, she dealt by striding out in front of the lowered curtain as her string trio moaned behind it. Doffing coat and scarf, she settled into an armchair with a glass of white wine, and roles reversed -- the audience became guests in her room.

Although the swoopy-lined modern environs did little to maintain that effect, Spalding quickly proved she belonged. Her face glowed with an unusual combination of cockiness and ecstasy beneath her famous ‘fro, the big hair preventing her small frame (trim in black pants and vest) from being dwarfed by her bulksome stand-up bass.

Spalding embraced the instrument like a friend; her fingers danced up and down the neck with sure spontaneity. When her voice -- high and airy, with a touch of grain -- sprang out in scat or melisma, her hands conversed easily with her throat, each making space for the other.

Spalding displayed similar balance in her interaction with second singer Leala Vogt -- trading vocal phrases, tripping in sparkly counterpoint, executing the distinctive harmonies that constitute an important coloration of her new album, ‘Chamber Music Society,’ from which most of the night’s material was drawn.

Although Spalding finds her main inspirations in Brazilian rhythm, samba and bossa nova, she showed little trace of melancholic saudade. Her phrasing and vocal tone stayed fresh, her attitude upbeat.

And her ability matched. Hired as a university instructor at 20, Spalding learned early the skills she put to use here in the harmonically advanced string arrangements (for the versatile Lois Martin, Sara Caswell and Jody Redhage), the open interplay of beats (greatly enhanced by the subtlety of veteran drummer Terri Lyne Carrington), the easy improvisation. This was real jazz.

On acoustic and electric piano, plus tasteful touches on an Indian-sounding zither, Leo Genovese served as Spalding’s primary solo foil, his percussive Latinate efforts somewhat blunted by treble-deficient sound equalization.

As well as musicianship, Spalding radiated a poetic aura. She borrowed William Blake’s ‘Little Fly’ for her ruminative opener; her own soaring ‘Winter Sun’ and sensitive ‘Apple Blossom’ exposed her gifts for clear imagery and dramatic narrative.

Where she didn’t quite connect was on the level of passion. Her ungrooving take on the Dmitri Tiomkin-Ned Washington standard ‘Wild Is the Wind’ pumped less blood than ether. And the set’s relaxed pace could have used more of the heavy boot that Carrington applied briefly in the second half.

But this was chamber music, and it was good enough for two standing ovations. And for sax great Wayne Shorter to remain in the audience for the whole hundred minutes. -- Greg Burk