Esperanza Spalding: Live last night

spaldingEsperanza Spalding at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue. (By Kyle Gustafson/FTWP)

Live Last Night

By Sarah Godfrey

As quickly as 25-year-old Esperanza Spalding was embraced as a promising new jazz talent, there was backlash. Spalding has been attacked for everything from playing the White House twice in one year (give other people a chance!) to stating that she models herself after both Ornette Coleman and Madonna. Some jazz purists don't think her singing is strong enough; others maintain her bass playing is overrated. And the fact that some of Spalding's fans rush to her defense by saying things like "I didn't even like jazz before I started listening to her" doesn't help matters.

While some may always believe that Spalding's success is more about youthful exuberance, personality and cool hair than exceptional musicianship, a few more performances like the one at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue on Saturday night could go a long way toward silencing them.

(Kicking off the anti-backlash backlash, after the jump.)

Spalding came across as more quirky and experimental than she seemed on either her 2008 eponymous disc or her appearances at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. She's not exactly Grace Jones, but she sure isn't Norah Jones, either.

For starters, with a few key exceptions ("Fall In," "I Know You Know"), she didn't do a lot from "Esperanza." "I figured since we've played so much in D.C., I thought we'd do some new stuff you haven't heard if you've seen us perform before -- and I figured since we're in a synagogue, we better rock out," Spalding said at the beginning of the show.

Throughout the night, Spalding (backed by Leonardo Genovese on piano, Ricardo Vogt on guitar, Lyndon Rochelle on drums and Leala Cyr on background vocals and trumpet), switched between double bass and bass guitar; and although her brand of fusion can at times seem like merely bouncing between straight-ahead standards and Latin jazz, she truly mixed things up, as with a bizzaro solo version of "Midnight Sun."

Anytime Spalding started to show her youth and relative inexperience, she countered with something incredible. "Cinnamon Tree," a new tune she wrote for a friend who was struggling to pass the bar, got a little treacly with lines such as "Roots firm in the ground/You soak up what's around/And make sweet seasoning." But Spalding recovered with a Wayne Shorter composition, picking perhaps the strangest possible selection from the saxophonist -- the trippy "Endangered Species" from 1985's "Atlantis."

And for every piece like "Jazz (Ain't Nothin' but Soul)," a liberal reworking of Betty Carter that drew inspiration from everything from spoken-word to Earth, Wind & Fire, where Spalding seems a little too presumptuous in schooling folks on the true meaning of jazz, there's a piece like her show-closing version of "I Can't Help It," where she overcame the public's Michael Jackson tribute fatigue by cramming extra notes into the bass line -- and may have inadvertently kicked off the Esperanza Spalding anti-backlash backlash.

By David Malitz |  December 7, 2009; 10:49 AM ET Live Last Night
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