By Hakim Abdul-Ali
Four time Grammy award winning artist Esperanza Spalding came to the Lowcountry for two appearances for the Spoleto Festival USA’s 2019 Wells Fargo Jazz Series on Friday, May 24 and Saturday, May 25. All she did was unveil her dazzling jazz vocal chords and bass playing skills to an anxiously awaiting Festival audience with her alluring professional musical style and precision sophistication.
Ms. Spalding performed with her stellar band mates comprising of drummer Marcus Gilmore, guitarist Matthew Stevens and musician extraordinaire Morgan Guerin at the College of Charleston’s Cistern Yard.
I’m here to tell you that they’re a peerless blend of superbly cutting edge, but ever-so-hip, jazz performers. They literally “jammed” for more than an hour, creating an enlightened, unparalleled atmosphere of incomparable vocal surprises and plain old uncharted musical fantasies.
Listen carefully. It’s hard to describe Esperanza Spalding to ordinary jazz lovers, except to say that, in my view, she’s an exceptionally experimental vocalist, who also happens to a definitive master of both the upright bass and the bass guitar. Very respectfully, this petite native of Portland, Oregon is a tour-du-force in whatever form of music that she desires to perform and display.
Her repertoire for the last show on Saturday, May 25, which was the one that I saw and critiqued, was an excellent barometer of her unique musical talents. She began the show by doing solo rendered numbers “Pyramids (UBESCO),” “Cantora De Yala,” and an Abbey Lincoln classic, “Throw It Away,” which, of course, delighted the audience.
To watch her perform and quintessentially do her thing is to be exposed to a rare, energetically nouveau jazz vocal experience. The rest of the evening’s program took place with her band joining her, and they performed “12 Little Spells,” “‘Til the Next Full,” “Thang,” “Touch in Mine,” “The Longing Deep Down,” “Now Know,” “All Limbs are Ready to Rise,” “With Others” and finally, sax great Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species.”
Esperanza’s musical genius, and she’s all of that, lies in the fact that she’s existing comfortablely in her apparently unconventional approach to being a jazz performer. It’s to be noted that in 2017, she was appointed Professor of the Practice of Music at Harvard University.
This dynamo is foremost an accomplished performer, and with her awesome band the tunes and songs they performed when I saw them delighted the enthused near capacity attendees on that Saturday evening. Her voice surprised me at how strong and vibrant it was as she was obviously having much fun being at the Festival and performing in Charleston.
As a cultural critic, I must admit that I was taken back by the ferocious clarity and the expanded dexterity of Esperanza Spalding’s uniquely gifted vocal pipes. This young lady, 34, is a recognized national jazz sensation, and she’s also an ascending international celebrity on the jazz horizons everywhere, demonstrating a mixture of musicality that expresses what she feels about life with a sophistication of a blooming superstar exploring new plateaus in her musical levitating orbits.
Esperanza’s band most certainly reflects that same soaring pedigree because they are an aggregate of super tightly skilled musicians who played emphatically during the concert, while providing a constant, groovy backdrop to many of Ms. Spalding’s soulfully poetic-like tunes in the evening’s programmatic format.
Many of this young lady’s tunes were filled with not-so-hidden realms of concerns about what’s going around her and humanity-in-general. I have to say this without bias.
The band was stellar, especially drummer Marcus Gilmore, he with the syncopated throbbing, funk like pronounced bottom sounds that permeated the evening’s air with steady jazz cadences. Matthew Stevens is a steady professional intellect on the guitar, and he showed it throughout the evening.
And, Morgan Guerin, a young multi- instrumental mastermind of the keyboard, saxophone, bass and synthesizer is one talented young brother—he’s simply “baaaad.” Of course, the star of show was Ms. Spalding, whose resolute voice added to the improvisational, saucy pieces that she vocally sang and scatted to with ease, while completely imparting her feelings musically upon the minds of the Spoleto audience.
You couldn’t help but love this young visionary because she’s a committed soul was in charge of all things musical that night. Esperanza Spalding and her band seem to have musically fed off each of other in casting a spontaneous musical trance of sorts upon the listening audience’s ears.
The entire band can sing, and they added their occasional supportive voices through- out many of Esperanza’s compositions as she (and they) astounded the Spoleto audience at the Cistern Yard that Saturday evening. A very popular local Charleston man about town and an avid supporter of the arts, Gordon “Flash” Smalls, who attended the Friday, May 24 show, told me that Esperanza’s show was spellbinding. “Her mellifluous voice reverberated throughout the entire venue as she captivated the audience with her grace and beauty,” said Mr.Smalls.
It would be hard to disagree with Mr. Smalls, or anyone else for that matter, who favorably saw either of Esperanza Spalding’s performances for Spoleto Festival USA. She beguiled everyone with an absorbing and scintillating one of a kind performance.