Esperanza Spalding (Barbican Centre, Friday 08 April. Review by Fran Hardcastle, photo credit: Roger Thomas)
Esperanza Spalding entered the Barbican stage in darkness, kicked off her shoes and poured a glass of wine. What followed was a short taste of honeyed chamber music for string trio (Jody Redhage, Sara Caswell and Lois Martin). The mini living room set brought a dash of theatricality, but it was a warm, welcoming and original touch, typical of the performing style that allowed her to defy the odds, and to win her the Grammy for Best New Artist.
While the music she performs draws influence from her classical roots, adding inflections of folk and world, the concoction is distinctly creatively fresh. Complex challenging time signatures sound organic. The sweetest songs avoid becoming overtly saccharine by the use of meaty harmony. The occasional use of vocals from Leala Cyr as part of the musical texture added to the orchestration of works like Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Spalding’s characterful voice slipped from soft smoky hues to wild free gut- wrenching cries of emotion. Her mature and heartfelt interpretation of Wild is the Wind belied her 26 years and brought me to tears. Whilst her vocal virtuousity was reflective of early Norma Winstone in the pitch perfect vocalese of Chacarera. On the bass, solos had her flying fingers dance around the instrument, or pulling out a warm sonorous tone with her bow.
Spalding displayed her flair for the dramatic in a captivating performance of Apple Blossoms, taking a seat to perform the song as though narrating a story. Her touching use of body language brought the lyrics to life. The exchange of spoken introductions for monologues building to recitative passages to segue into charts was effective if towards the end, a tad overused.
The highlight of the evening, the vibrant latin tinged What A Friend, saw a welcome opportunity for pianist Leo Genovese to let rip supported by brief spurts of fire from percussionist Richie Barshay. It was a shame there weren’t more chances to hear from these pretty spectacular musicians, but this didn’t mar the rapture of the audience in watching Spalding really hitting it on the bass, revelling in the interaction of her powerful band. Along with Winter Sun, it doesn’t seem far-reaching to liken her writing to Stevie Wonder in the ability to produce jubilant music that lives on in your head long after the performance.