I WAS THERE…Esperanza Spalding @ The Highline Ballroom 10.08.08

One of the best things about seeing an artist is their process live. Photo by Dino Perucci

Esperanza Spalding
The Highline Ballroom
October 8, 2008

Esperanza Spalding’s nearly 90-minute set at The Highline Ballroom on Wednesday night gave the crowd the opportunity to travel through her different musical influences. Early on in her performance, the setting was very much the typical New York jazz scene. The room was almost pitch black with hints of blue light hitting Spalding and her band members on stage. The waitresses rushed by holding trays of food and drinks hoping not to spill or drop something and interrupt the show. And Spalding began with her version of “Body and Soul” in 5/4 time. She sang the popular standard in English rather than Portuguese and the sound was atmospheric, full of nice guitar trills from Ricardo Vogt and Spalding’s melodic bass playing. Her vocal, however, on “Body and Soul” never quite matched the fullness of the band’s sound. She towered over the double bass, carefully hitting each note, and so did her massive curly mane. Both Spalding and her locks swayed freely with its rhythms.

“Does anyone have a hair tie?” she asked the crowd in the middle of her set. The audience laughed with shock and puzzlement over Spalding’s request. “I’m serious” she exclaimed. A dreadlocked gentleman was nice enough to offer her one and the show immediately continued.

With her hair now tied back, Spalding talked to the crowd about her dreams of owning a home someday for her and her mom. She further explained how this was what motivated her to write the song “Precious,” with the hope that it would become her first pop hit. The phrasing of the lyrics on “Precious” makes it a little hard to sing along to: “But I’m not gonna sit around and waste my precious divine energy/Trying to explain and being ashamed of things you think are wrong with me.” The song has not yet achieved the crossover success she was hoping for, but with its infectious lyrics and jazz-like melodies, “Precious” will definitely garner attention.

There were several standouts throughout the evening: “I Know You Know,” an R&B-inflected tune kicked off well by Otis Brown’s commanding drums, is about a guy’s unwillingness to accept the fact that Spalding’s love is true. Her cover of Nina Simone’s “Wild is the Wind” is a beautifully dark exploration of love and romance, thanks in part to Leo Genovese’s contemplative piano.

The set’s closing song, “I Adore You,” transported us to Brazil, a place that is home for Spalding. It is not her native home, but it is the place where her musical voice is most unique and interesting. “I Adore You” best shows her use of counterpoint—playing different melodic lines, which will blend together to create harmonies. These melodies are created from Spalding’s scatting, which is juxtaposed against her bass playing.

The band members were out of sync during the first few numbers, especially where Spalding’s bass overpowered Leo Genovese’s piano. But the set gradually improved, showing the crowd why the wave of kudos bestowed upon Esperanza Spalding is well-deserved.

Shannon J. Effinger

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