With the house lights down and the huge Campbell Hall stage curtain drawn, Esperanza Spalding made her way quietly to an armchair that had been set up in the downstage left corner of the performance space. First taking off her jacket, and then making herself comfortable by turning on a lamp and pouring a drink from a pitcher of water, Spalding could have been coming home from a long day at work. But there were approximately 860 people seated in front of her, watching her every move, and soon music began to emanate from behind the curtain. When the curtain opened, it revealed a full band including three string players, piano, drums, and a backup singer. The only thing for Spalding to do was exactly what she did—after one last sip she walked barefoot to center stage and picked up her acoustic bass.
This unusual opening gambit was just one of the ways that Esperanza Spalding upended expectations in the course of her excellent performance on Sunday night, and though this little opening playlet may not have been as consequential as what happened in her music, it was a good indicator of how much thought and freedom have gone into this young woman’s presentation. In the title of the Grammy award she won this year, equal emphasis must be placed on the word “new,” because, despite a clear reverence for musical tradition and considerable chops, Esperanza Spalding has got something going on that has not been seen before, in jazz or anywhere else.
The group—Darrell Grant on piano, Terri Lyne Carrington on drums, Sara Caswell on violin, Jody Redhage on cello, Lois Martin on viola, and Leala Cyr, backup vocals—proved both energetic and flexible enough to span the many tempos and moods that Spalding spun out over the course of her long single set. Highlights included “Little Fly,” a song that incorporates lyrics adapted from the poetry of William Blake, “Short and Sweet,” and “Midnight Sun.” Spalding teamed up with Cyr for a particularly memorable duet accompanied by some fancy hand-clapping, and held the whole thing together with ease, moving effortlessly from bass to vocals. The overall effect was like watching the sun rise.