Esperanza Spalding's concert, last Saturday night, at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, was something of a puzzle. After easily winning the informal prize for best press conference earlier in the week, with her dazzling mix of wit, modesty, intelligence, and charisma, I and everyone I spoke to expected nothing short of fireworks when she took the stage. Instead, the concert got off to a rocky start and then split the audience in two. Some were clearly charmed; others walked out, right in the middle of the set.
Esperanza Spalding, Cape Town, 26 March 2011. (All photos copyright John Edwin Mason, 2011. Click on any of the images to see larger versions.)
The shaky beginning wasn't entirely Spalding's fault. For unknown reasons, the concert started very late. After about 45 minutes of waiting, restless members of the audience began rhythmic clapping, demanding that somebody -- the promoters, the MC, the crew -- usher the star and her band onto the stage. Only a minority of the crowd took part, but it certainly affected the mood in the hall.
When the lights finally dimmed, Spalding entered the auditorium through a side door, climbed on the the stage, took a seat in an easy chair, and poured herself a glass of wine, while the violins and cello in her band played softly in the background. I understand what she was trying to say with these theatrics -- that this is chamber music, serious and sophisticated, music for an enjoyment that's as intellectual as it is visceral. But given her youth (and very youthful appearance) it came off as pretentious. (In fact, it reminded me of my 20-year-old self -- the self that thought smoking a pipe made him seem mature.) It was also unnecessary. Nobody's going to mistake Spalding's music for either smooth jazz or gut-bucket blues.
Esperanza Spalding and her band, Cape Town, 26 March 2011.
Fortunately, Spalding didn't milk the moment. She quickly joined her band and began to play. (By the way, I'm calling it "her band" advisedly. The relationship on stage was all about the diva, on the one hand, and her backup players, on the others. This was a striking contrast to the conversation between musical equals that we heard during the fabulous sets by, say, the Wayne Shorter and Patricia Barber quartets.)
Esperanza Spalding, Leala Cyr, and Richie Barshay, Cape Town, 26 March 2011.
She may be a diva, but there's no doubt that she's also a wonderful musician, as a bassist, singer, and composer. She drew a warm, rich sound out of the bass (which is owned by the great South African bassist Basil Moses and was rented for the occasion). With a light touch and brilliant technique, she's one of the most melodic players I've ever heard.
There's a lightness, as well, to the long, looping melodic lines of her songs, which are perfectly suited to the classical chamber music vibe that Spalding and her band created.
The fireworks, when they finally went off, came not from the band or Spalding's bass, but from her singing.
Esperanza Spalding, Cape Town, 26 March 2011.
From the moment Spadling began to sing, most members of the audience (and I) couldn't take their eyes off of her. That's in part by the almost cartoonish expressiveness of her face and because of the way her performance style combines singing and dance-like moves. She may not have the physical charisma of a Michael Jackson, but she can give Mick Jagger a run for his money.
Her voice isn't big, but it's powerful, flexible, and capable of carrying a emotional wallop. Even though her lyrics didn't do much for me (I'm likely too old, too male, and too experienced for them), the sheer sound of her voice and the beauty of her melodies held my attention from beginning to end.
So, why was there so much churning in the audience, so much coming and going?
I think it's pretty simple. This was music for listening, not partying. You have to work a bit to enjoy it. And a good portion of the crowd of over 15,000 that the festival attracts each day isn't interesting music that makes them work. That's what they've done all week, and, now, they want to kick back and have a good time. If Spalding wasn't going to provide it, they were sure to find it at one of the other performances that were happening at the same time on other stages. Who can blame them? I just wish they'd made a little less noise on their way out.