I can say after witnessing the recent Grammy winner’s performance at Campbell Hall Sunday night, I now worship at the altar of Esperanza Spalding.
The Arts & Lectures event was packed. A diverse crowd of people ranging from young children to much older guests, including many UCSB students, gathered to see the young star.
The performance began when all the lights in the hall went black. After a good two minutes, a door opened to the right of the stage and for a brief moment, the crowd could see Spalding’s afro move through the space. They greeted her with loud applause.
The door shut and everything remained in darkness. Then Spalding turned on a tall lamp set up on the rightmost side of the stage. She proceeded to interact with the set — the lamp, an old-fashioned armchair, a small table with a vase of roses and pitcher of water — while ignoring the audience. She slowly took off her jacket, her shoes, poured herself a glass of water and sat back into the chair with a pensive expression.
The lamp faded out and the curtains opened, revealing a band of two violinists and a cellist set up to the middle left of the stage. Their set was incredibly sparse. The only lighting came from small lamps onstage next to each artist.
The three played for at least a minute until Spalding walked into the set. She picked up her double bass and joined, transitioning into an extended version of the song “Little Fly.”
Spalding’s voice is out of this world. I can’t imagine doing justice to it in a written description. (So you should really just look up her work, seriously. Even you, Bieber fans. Let go of your grudges.) She had the crowd so enthralled the entire room was silent; no one wanted to disturb the magic occurring onstage.
Even after more stage lights came on, the darkness of the room added an intimate atmosphere to the performance. I could easily pretend I was in a jazz club watching Spalding perform in front of only 50 people, rather than 900.
After her first song, it seemed as if she could have stopped and each person in the room would have agreed they had gotten their money’s worth. Luckily for all of us, this was only the beginning of an incredible performance — one of the top three shows I’ve seen in my life.
For the next song, a back-up vocalist, piano player, and drummer joined the rest onstage. Spalding leaned her bass onto a chair and began drumming on the side of it, beginning before the uproarious applause of the audience had died down.
The audience quickly shut up and listened as she drummed and sang her way into an upbeat tune. She took the mic from its stand and began dancing as she sang, at times returning to drum and at times singing to her instrument.
I could make out what seemed to be a few Spanish words, but often her singing is just sound. For the first time, I noticed the parallels between Spalding and another favorite performer of mine, Andrew Bird. Both have an incredible way of balancing vocals and virtuosic instrumental skill, making both as good as one could hope for and combining them in a way that leaves the listener ecstatic and wishing for more.
Spalding delivered. Each song became an extended version of itself in which the entire band jammed out onstage to expand and enhance the studio versions of the songs. Whereas a lot of performers will keep songs short to keep the crowd’s energy high, Spalding — a true jazz artist — did the opposite with her songs and the length was refreshing. Within each song were many unexpected turns, and it’s doubtful anyone’s interest waned for a moment.
Almost immediately after ending her second song, she dove into the third, using a bow to play her instrument for some time. For a good deal of the song, she remained hunched over the instrument, mournful.
The wistfully romantic, “Wild Is the Wind,” washed over the audience like a wave. This is anything but pop music. It’s not something with catchy lyrics that won’t disappear until you give in and buy the song on iTunes. It’s something that appeals to one’s heart; it’s music you feel. Spalding is truly an incredible example of everything powerful in jazz.
Some critics might argue Spalding is so recognizable because of her unique presence: she’s a woman, she has badass afro hair and she plays the formidable upright bass. I believe critics were proved wrong Sunday night, when she sat down and constrained her movement while singing the song “Apple Blossom.”
The music resonated with the crowd, whether or not she was moving around stage or creating a show for us to watch. Instead, her lack of movement brought us inward. By the end of the song, I was on the verge of crying.
There were many beautiful moments throughout the performance, like when she and her back-up singer began walking toward each other singing without mics and broke into a skillful duet. After each song I wanted to stand up and applaud. I wanted to turn to the strangers on either side of me and say, “Holy shit.”
After a couple more enlightening pieces, the incredible performance ended in the same way it began: The lights dimmed onstage and the curtain closed. The lamp turned on to reveal Spalding sitting in the chair, as if she had just awoken from a beautiful daydream in which music is everything. Nearly 1,000 other people completely understood, while she came back to reality, slipped on her shoes and coat and turned off the light.