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Esperanza Spalding Chamber Music Society at Knight Theater

Mark F. Turner By

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Esperanza Spalding
Knight Theater
Charlotte, North Carolina
September 24, 2010

Having had little exposure to Esperanza Spalding's music, some questions were answered by her visit to the Knight Theater on September 24th. Part of Charlotte's two-day Sunset Jazz Festival, it was the prodigy-turned jazz phenom's first appearance in the city. The concert dovetailed with Chamber Music Society (Heads Up International, 2010), the young singer/bassist's third release, and with more than three quarters of the 1150 seats filled, the venue was abuzz with anticipation.

At the far right hand corner of the stage with curtains drawn rested some curiously positioned furniture— an armchair, a lamp, and a table adorned with a wine bottle and glass. The sound of soft string music began to fill the air just before Spalding unobtrusively entered from the corner to the crowd's delight. Like a scene of a person arriving home from a hard day's work, she proceeded to pull off her coat and shoes, poured herself a glass of wine, took a couple of sips, and relaxed in comfort as the chamber music wafted quietly.

After taking a few moments to enjoy her music and drink, the curtains opened to reveal a live string ensemble consisting of a violinist, violist, and cellist. This was the cue as Spalding gracefully sat up, with glass in hand, and joined the group to play the massive double bass which was positioned at the trio's center. The appropriate union now formed, they continued the stirring composition and affectively set the tone for the remainder of evening. This was not going to be a typical jazz or classical concert.

Spalding immediately answered the question of her musicality. She performed with authority, poise, and vivaciousness, providing an exhilarating display of her many talents: a beautiful voice with a depth and range rivaling any singer of note; uninhibited prowess on the bass, whether bowing passionately or handling a soulful swing-walk, her abilities were natural and inspiring. The group-symbiosis was undeniable. The discipline and flexibility of the string ensemble was further augmented by a spirited jazz ensemble—drummer, pianist, and an additional singer. They presented Spalding's unique vision of composition, song, and riveting improvisation; travelling between the variations with ease.

The many highlights included an a cappella duet between Spalding and the additional singer with its Bobby McFerrin meets Antonio Carlos Jobim flair; or Spalding transforming her double bass into a percussion instrument as she traded rhythmic solos with the drummer; and her dancing an impromptu Latin cha-cha as the band went deep into the groove. Whether playing, singing, or dancing, her spirit was infectious.

The audience's appreciative applause at the end of the concert was rewarded with an encore. Spalding re-entered the stage alone and closed with an iconic curtain call. A poignant rendition of "Midnight Sun," a jazz standard that was originally composed by Lionel Hampton and Sonny Burke, then put to lyrics by songwriter Johnny Mercer. The classic melody was given the Spalding treatment; lyrics oozed with charisma and empathy, accompanied by her emphatic bass playing. It was a fitting conclusion to an excellent concert. She can seemingly do it all and proved it that night.

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