November 24, 2009
The heavy drumbeat pierced the air, and the sellout crowd, believing the show to have started, slowly put down their drinks and turned to face the stage. It took some longer than others, but soon all realized that Esperanza Spalding, she whose name was on the bill for the evening, had yet to grace the stage. As it turned out, her band was giving her an introduction by way of a musical fanfare, laying down a heavy groove while letting the crowd's anticipation build to its height before Spalding took the stage. Such a tribute is not often reserved for jazz musicians, who hardly qualify as rock stars. However, Spalding deserved this and every other small bit of appreciation accorded her throughout her two-set extravaganza at New Morning. She transcends jazz, and maybe even music: she's a phenomenon, and a star by any definition.
It wasn't just the music that made an otherwise dreary Wednesday evening so memorable, though the music certainly played a large role. It was the charisma, the effervescence, the likeability of this 25-year-old ball of energy. Her presence alone seemed to permeate the Paris night. It was like she was looking into 300 pairs of eyes all at once, demanding their complete attention while she performed. She was more than exceptional: she was beyond compare.
Which is not to slight the rest of her trio. In fact, it proved more than capable of backing Spalding's one- woman show, even stealing the spotlight from her at times. Keyboardist Leonardo Genovese was everywhere at once: in the background, at the forefront, on the piano, on various keyboards (one, which must have been tuned especially for Paris, even sounded like an accordion). Wherever he was his presence was certainly felt. Playing the only chordal and melodic instrument, Genovese was given the lion's share of the solo space, and he continually impressed with the fluidity and freshness of his ideas.
In the meantime, drummer Lyndon Rochelle was an absolute rock behind the kit. Many of Spalding's songs have complicated meters, twisting and turning and rarely repeating themselves. Rochelle was somehow able to find a groove on each one, and his ability to alter the groove ever so slightly brought out the best in both Spalding and Genovese.
The tunes ran the gamut of styles from blues to pop to jamband, touching on standards and Argentinian dance music along the way. Spalding, meanwhile, made each style her own. Her voice is light and flutters up and down scales as a bird's song might, yet it possesses at the same time an inexplicable power. And her bass playing, while still raw and not nearly as fluid as her vocal stylings, is certainly at a very high level. At times during her solos, it sounded as if she were singing through her bass.
The first set opened with a soulful vocal improvisation that immediately whipped the crowd into a frenzy, followed by a fiery "She Got To You" from the excellent Esperanza (2008, Heads Up Records) and a very different version of "Autumn Leaves." Other highlights included an extended version of "I Know You Know" and a beautiful rendition of "Precious," both off Esperanza, as well as the second- set-closing "I Can't Help It," dedicated to Michael Jackson.
No longer is Spalding "the next big thing": she has arrived. Her work in the studio relates little to her live show. In the studio, her vocal performances are flawless, the arrangements tight and constructed. On stage, raw emotion takes over. She and her band are spunky, innocent, reflective, seductive, and rebellious all at once. The density of sound for what, at its core, is a piano trio, is remarkable. Unlike the fleeting luminescence of pop stars, Spalding's is a star that will continue to shine its light on the jazz world for decades to come.