Frontier Psychiatrist

Killing It On The Bass: Esperanza Spalding @ Webster Hall

Posted on: May 15, 2012

Esperanza Spalding, Best “New” Artist

Last month, I saw Esperanza Spalding perform for the third time in 10 years. On each successive occasion, the venues get larger, the expectations are higher, and the performances are less exciting.

My first opportunity to see Spalding came in 2002. I was plying my trade as a freelance jazz musician in Portland, OR and  everybody was talking about this “Esperanza kid” who was killing it on the bass. A fundraiser was scheduled at the tiny club Disjecta to help pay for her pending move to Boston to attend Berklee. That night, I saw exactly what I wanted: a kid killing it on the bass, in an assortment of different ensembles of a jazz and hip-hop variety. Fast forward to 2008. Once again, everybody around me is talking about this girl with an afro killing it on the bass as a result of her late-night TV appearances. I see Spalding with her quartet in a double-bill with Anat Cohen’s band at an uptown theater as part of the JVC Jazz Festival in New York. This time she was as capable and engaging as ever, while also clearly coming in to her own as a bandleader. Spalding’s set grooved hard enough that I caught Cohen dancing in the aisles

Fast forward to April 21, 2012. Spalding is now a Grammy winner for Best New Artist, (beating out sure-thing Justin Bieber), and has four albums as a leader under her belt, including this year’s beautiful Radio Music Society. The venue was the large and poorly managed Webster Hall, with no less than 10 musicians joining Spalding on stage. The band was fantastic, particularly Tia Fuller on alto sax, Jeff Lee Johnson on guitar, and longtime Spalding cohort Leo Genevese on keyboards. Spalding was entertaining, and the performances, drawing exclusively from the new album save for the solo encore, were all faithful to the compositions and competently executed. But compared to several other recent jazz shows, Spalding’s show was simply less engaging.

This is somewhat baffling. The crowd was clearly in her corner before she stepped on stage, and the tunes on the new record are some of her most enjoyable and accessible, but live the experience felt flat. For one thing, the staging is distracting, and out of place in a jazz context. The large horn section sat on a bandstand positioned stage-left, and made to look like the dial of the boombox from the cover of the Radio Music Society. The show opens with the band, sans Spalding, playing a sequence of short bits ostensibly designed to suggest that its the music coming from the radio as the dial is moved back and forth. The segment lasts entirely too long, and concludes once Spalding awkwardly makes her entrance from offstage, playing her fretless electric bass (the size of the band made this entrance a little tricky, even on the moderately large Webster Hall main stage).

I’d like to blame the sound engineer for the fact that Spalding’s attack on the electric bass sounded “clicky,” especially because her upright was also clearly suffering from sound difficulties. Yet my experience with basses suggest that Spalding may simply be plucking the strings too hard, a common problem for bassists who switch between upright and electric. Her playing on upright is so fluid and expressive, it’s somewhat frustrating that it hasn’t quite translated to her electric playing.

Perhaps I’m being too critical. The crowd, who based on the pre-show chatter was comprised primarily of Spalding first-timers, clearly enjoyed the show, with the current single “Black Gold” and the cover of the Stevie Wonder-penned Michael Jackson classic “Can’t Help It” receiving particularly rapturous applause, and Spalding was understandably distracted by the sound difficulties that plagued her instruments, as well as the pounding bass from the club night in progress in another room at Webster Hall. Reemerging on stage for her encore alone and armed only with her upright, she told the audience she wasn’t sure if she had anything to play, because she didn’t know anything in that tempo (referring to the four-on-the-floor house beat emanating from the other room), before delivering a redeeming and enchanting rendition of the song “Precious,” from her sophomore, self-titled LP.

My takeaway from the show was that Spalding is a great singer and upright bassist, and sounds better the fewer musicians are on stage with her, and at least in this instance sounds better on upright bass.  I hope that as the tour progresses that the show tightens up and the sound problems are properly addressed, but for now I’m just holding out hope for an even-better next album.

Wayan Zoey plays drums and bass with and for a number of other people. He also plays guitar, but only when alone and listening to Phish. He recently reviewed Robert Glasper and Soulive’s Brooklyn Bowl shows and new albums by Glasper and Esperanza Spalding.


2 Responses to "Killing It On The Bass: Esperanza Spalding @ Webster Hall"

[…] but only when alone and listening to Phish. A regular contributor to FP, he recently reviewed Esperanza Spalding’s show at Webster Hall, Robert Glasper and Soulive’s Brooklyn Bowl shows, and new albums by Glasper and Spalding. […]

[…] contributor to FP, he recently wrote about two weeks on the road with DJ Shadow, and reviewed Esperanza Spalding’s show at Webster Hall, and Robert Glasper and Soulive’s shows at Brooklyn […]

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