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Esperanza Spalding

Richard Vogt

Esperanza Spalding

Leo Genovese

Esperanza Spalding

Ottis Brown III

photos by Rudy Lu

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Music Haven Concert Series
Central Park
Schenectady, NY
August 3, 2008

by Tom Pierce

Mona Golub, with her Music Haven series, gave hundreds of music lovers that special feeling the first time one witnesses a uniquely gifted artist. Live performances by truly accomplished musicians obviously provide additional dimensions beyond listening to recordings.

Bassist-vocalist Esperanza Spalding demonstrated this pleasurable difference in a variety of ways on Sunday August 3. One of these was the interesting ways she artfully and naturally embodied some of the “old” (the time-honored traditions of instrumental Jazz and the Great American Songbook) as well as some of the “new” (her own unique talent and affinity for both free & contemporary jazz, Brazilian & other Latin music, and superior Pop). Her fluidly natural ease in singing in English, Spanish and Portuguese was clearly a huge asset.

Another difference with the concert was her choosing a number of classic songs that in addition to not being on either of her two CD's, distinguished themselves from earlier unforgettable versions by legendary artists, with her very personal interpretation.

The first of these was her set opener, a spirited reading of bassist Norman Mapp's composition “Jazz Ain't Nothing But Soul”, indelibly etched in this reviewer's mind from the outstanding 1960 release, “The Modern Sound of Betty Carter”. Esperanza's swinging version was at a slightly slower medium tempo. Two other selections not on her CD's that she did exceptional versions of were two exquisitely haunting songs - “Wild is the Wind” (memorably recorded by both Johnny Mathis and Nina Simone) and as a delightfully sensitive closing encore, accompanying herself solo on bass, “The Midnight Sun”, which some associate primarily with Ella Fitzgerald, from her 40th Birthday concert LP in Rome in 1958.

The concert did include however three songs from her latest CD, “Esperanza”, each with very different styles. The classic “Body & Soul” was done in 5/4 time, with some very different phrasing. Her own composition, “Precious” was closer to contemporary (but not exactly “Smooth”) Jazz. And “Ponta de Areia” was a lilting Brazilian tune by Milton Nascimento.

Her touring band of three very capable, young Boston-based musicians, Leo Genovese on piano, Richard Vogt on guitar and Otis Brown lll on drums were very adept at handling the intricate rhythms which are a huge part of her appeal. Her own bass work, with great ease in playing imaginatively stimulating lines, was outstanding, as one would expect from someone who's played with artists like Joe Lovano and Pat Metheny, among others.

At only 23, her voice should continue to develop and deepen; but her basic vocal attributes - range, intonation, breath control, etc - are already beyond that of the average instrumentalist who also happens to sing. And most find her ability to sing and play rhythmically intricate lines simultaneously truly exceptional. However, while her phrasing & delivery in singing lyrics was both imaginative and pleasing, her vocal quality that some of us found most compelling and extraordinary was her wordless vocalizing/scatting.

It'll be interesting to see which way she and her management decide to take her career, in terms of the degree to become more or less commercial, versus more artistically abstract and Jazz & World music oriented. She alluded to this dilemma in introducing ”Precious” that she wrote for her second CD, trying to get a “Pop hit”. The song apparently wound up being too complex for mass appeal, but was certainly enjoyed by the jazz audience at the Music Haven. A possible hint at the direction she may be leaning toward, now that she's recording on a major label (Concord), is the absence on the new CD of most of the wordless vocalizing/scatting that dominated the first CD, “Junjo”, in place of more lyric-driven songs.

But regardless of which career direction she chooses, the depth and scope of her talents, in conjunction with the very attractive, joyful, confidently expressive persona she exudes will surely take her far. A number in the audience were heard to comment on her “star quality”.

But above all else, this observer was most struck by how her unique total package makes her impossible to easily compare to any other performer. She's truly an original.

Tom Pierce has had a burning passion for Jazz for over 45 years, initiated and fueled by seeing live in New York City, starting in the early 1960's, virtually every major artist still performing. He's been very happily living in Guilderland the last 5 years, as an active retiree sharing his love of music by writing online reviews for a number of web sites, preparing DVD presentations to various groups, co-Hosting Radio programs showcasing his favorite artists and busily supporting A Place for Jazz and the SwingTime Society in a variety of ways.