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Masterful and triumphant

Esperanza Spalding
The Historic Rialto Theatre
Tucson, AZ
August 16, 2015
Esperanza Spalding Esperanza Spalding

Review and photos by Mary Andrews

Esperanza is one of the highly touted new jazz artists on the scene today. There was a lot of social media banter when she beat teen idol, Justin Bieber, at the Grammys in 2011 as the best new artist of the year. The other artists up for that award were Florence and the Machine, Drake, and Mumford and Sons. This was the first time a jazz artist had taken this award. All totaled, Spalding has garnered four Grammy awards in a short period of time.

Esperanza Spalding grew up in a poor neighborhood in Portland, Oregon raised by a single mother. She is of African American, Native American, and Hispanic heritage. This heritage has had a direct influence on Spalding's music. Esperanza has played music since she was five years old and she plays violin, oboe, piano, clarinet, and double bass. By the age of twenty, she was teaching music at the College of Music in Berkley. From there, it was apparent that Esperanza Spalding had a lot to say with her energetic and boundless music.

Spalding created this tour to do something different, "to create another world" as she said in an interview. She wanted to play a sort of 'surrealist poet.' The show is a series of vignettes that create feelings, allow playfulness, but keeps the music in the forefront of the performance. As the recipient of this musical experience, I found myself overwhelmed and overanalyzing what was being presented. There was a lot of stunning visual stimuli in addition to the explosive sound. Esperanza's clothes are wildly colorful. Her make up is scant. Her signature Afro-hairdo has been replaced by long cornrows and on top of all that she is sporting hipster-nerd glasses.

There was a slide show in the background. The content started with a vintage photo of a Caucasian baby, then, followed with the same baby pictured with a dark African American female caretaker apparently holding the baby. The next slide was another vintage photograph of a Native American apparently surrendering by signing papers with soldiers surrounding the table. These photographs seemed to be a reference to Spalding's heritage. In the forefront of the slides, Spalding was ferociously playing her bass and singing "Noble Nobles." At this point, I had to remind myself to stop analyzing and start engaging in the musical experience. Spalding revealed later in the show that Emily is her middle name and she was called that as a child.

The supporting musicians were nothing short of superb. Corey King and another vocalist were on background vocals and keyboards, Matt Stevens played killer guitar and Justin Tyson was relentless on drums. As a band they were as tight as a band could get. Spalding displayed the most nimble fingers on the electric bass and keyboards that can be found these days. Playing bass seems to be effortless while she sings. There were episodes of guitar and bass dueling between Spalding and Stevens that were breathtaking.

The songs in the show were all new tunes not found on any of Ms. Spalding's other albums. Highlights included "Funk the Fear" with lyrics that encouraged the listener to overcome adversity and embrace their uniqueness. "Unconditional Love" was the finale and had the crowd singing along by the time her last phrase, "We could change the whole story of love." Heads were bobbing in the audience even though this was all new, unheard material. It was glorious improvisational jazz at its best. The intimate show was an artist's eclectic palette painted with rich explosions of dramatic color.
Set List:
1. Good Lava
2. The One
3. Ebony and Ivy
4. Noble Nobles
5. Farewell Dolly
6. Funk the Fear
7. Elevator Operator
8. Earth to Heaven
9. Judas
10. Change Us
11. Unconditional Love

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