I sat in a heaving Queen Elizabeth Hall last night to see and hear singer/bassist Esperanza Spalding. Opened by piano virtuoso Zoe Rahman, Esperanza was joined by special guest Gretchen Parlato – I rather felt this might be the Charlie’s Angels of jazz.
Zoe’s solo set shimmered like her long hair, her slight frame and polite demeaner belying her strength as she kicked out powerful numbers like The Stride by Abdullah Ibrahim. The stage was set solidly for the highly anticipated main act.
Having watched Esperanza online, playing at the White House and with Stevie Wonder – I can purport that her charisma is not in the editing. She’s electric. Chamber Music Society, her latest cd is presented as a piece of theatre. With an arm chair and side lamp stage left, she sits quietly in the chair, kicks off her sling-backs and pours a glass of red wine. The trio of Olivia de Prato (violin) Lois Martin (viola) and Jody Redhage (cello) accompany her unwinding; it makes an intimate, civilised and reflective setting. Their intro leads us to Little Fly by William Blake; a commentary on the fragility of the human condition, the gentle string ensemble compounding the delicate nature of the words. Esperanza does not rush; she leaves heart-stopping breaks between hinge points of the song “if I live or if I die…”
The ensemble is joined by Leonardo Genovese (piano) Richard Barshay (drums) and Leala Vogt (backing vocals); they continue with Knowledge of Good and Evil, an instrumental number wherein the voices are indeed instruments – Espeanza’s soaring range is a continual surprise. This project is a crossover, feeding heavily on contemporary classical sounds, I could imagine it as an accompaniment for an art house film or contemporary ballet – perhaps this is why the theatrical setting was introduced? There are no thanks to applause between numbers, just a dignified silence from the performers as between movements in a classical concert. I think this rigidity might have been a surprise to some of the audience familiar with the funky afro Cuban style songs on her previous album.
A stand out number was Apple Blossom, an original song and story by Esperanza about an elderly man visiting the site of his true love’s grave beneath the trees “where they used to go walking”. A song of such melancholy, Esperanza sat and sang like a story teller of yesteryear, leaning forward to touch the ground “But her body lies beneath the apple blossoms.”
There were opportunities to groove and Esperanza showed her sweet grin of elation throughout numbers like Chacarera, drumming the double bass with her hands and dancing – she exudes music and rhythm from her bare feet to her expanded afro. Gretchen Parlato joined Esperansa for the vocal duet Inutil Paisagem/If You Never Come To Me by Antonio Carlos Jobim; accompanied only by bass and Gretchen’s soft clapping, they almost merged into a single musical body – the audience were delighted by this beautiful union, and to hear a popular standard.
The production drew to a close with Really Very Small, all three voices combining in wordless vocalese that echoed the African style harmonies on her previous release. Esperanza mused about her size (she has a tiny frame) but her stage presence and talent combine to make her a giant. As with Little Fly, size is always relative. Everyone connected passionately with this exciting production – as Esperanza sang in Wild as the Wind “Let my love go through your heart” and that is exactly what it did.