On Sunday night more than 2000 people showed up at Davies Symphony Hall and got to witness something that is going to be hard to describe without resorting to hyperbole. So fuck it. Esperanza Spalding was phenomenal.
Performing her most recent record Chamber Music Society in it's entirety, Spalding and her accomplices took what was already an impressive album and turned it into a masterpiece. I seriously hope the shows on this tour are being recorded. Accompanied by a string trio comprised of Sara Caswell on violin, Lois Martin on viola and Jody Redhage on cello, Spalding's bass made it a quartet of a different kind. Playing in tandem with the very talented Leo Genovese on piano and the fantastic Terri Lyne Carrington on the drums, this was essentially two completely different kinds of bands creating music together at the same time - a glorious blending of jazz and chamber ensembles woven together so seamlessly it comes across as a natural evolution without a trace of novelty.
Both configurations-quartet and trio, are anchored by Spalding on bass. She's a musician with long experience in classical music and is a natural jazz player. On top of that, scatting and singing effortlessly in three different languages, Spalding is one of the finest vocalists I've ever heard. Also accompanying the group was backing vocalist Leala Cyr who was very impressive in her own right.
After a theatrical entrance, Spalding and crew slid into what became "Little Fly," Chamber Music Society's opening track. This beguiling song, the lyrics of which are a poem by William Blake, features Spalding in a plaintive yet whimsical vocal mood, playing descending, bluesy notes on her bass while Caswell follows behind her with a sad melody on the violin. They stretched it out into something much deeper and more beautiful than the version on the album.
And then they kept going through the tracks, expanding melodies, stretching out interludes into twisting spirals of sound that became simply rapturous when Spalding added her soaring vocals to the mix. I know it's hyperbolic- but they were that good. "Wild is the Wind" was turned into a tour de force. I had to wonder if they hit this level regularly or were we witnessing one of those all too rare performances when musicians take it unwittingly to another level and don't even realize it until it's there- right in front, surrounding them. Out of the hundreds of concerts I've seen, perhaps thousands, I've only seen that happen perhaps a dozen times- when a a gig crosses from a performance over an invisible line into something special- almost mystical, which you can only see as its happening, but more importantly you feel it. This show felt like that and yet it seemed so effortless I suspect there is something genuinely unique about this band, and its incredibly special leader, that allows them to hit this level regularly.
That's really all you need to know. This was their last U.S. gig before they take off for a European tour. They'll return to the U.S. in December and will perform through March across the country. Check out their website and get yourself a ticket. Do not miss them. With almost three months to go before the year ends and lot of things to see and hear before then, I suspect I may have already seen and heard the best musical performance I'm going to this year. With this show Spalding catapulted herself into a small group of performers whose concerts I'd really hate to miss. Her company? If you really want to know, Martha Argerich, Leila Josefowicz, Patti Smith, Prince, Rickie Lee Jones, AllenToussaint, Joyce DiDonato and Karitta Mattila are on that short list.
SFJazz, who put on the show, is only two weeks into their fall festival and they have some fanstastic artists lined up for 30 some-odd shows over the next few weeks, but I have to ask them- can you top this?
Yeah. Phenomenal. And she's only 25- this is going to be a fascinating musical career to watch.