• Esperanza Spalding at the Portland Jazz Festival

    February 26, 2011. Posted by Alex Rodriguez.

    Add new comment | Filed under: concerts
    Esperanza Spalding started her live show in a similar pose
    photo by Sandrine Lee

    This week, WBGO web producer and Portland, Oregon native Alex W. Rodriguez traveled to his hometown to attend the Portland Jazz Festival. How has jazz in his hometown fared, eight years after he left for the East Coast? Watch this space to find out, as Alex shares his experiences throughout the main festival weekend.

    Last night, bassist-singer-composer-jazz phenomenon Esperanza Spalding made her wildly-anticipated appearance at this week's Portland Jazz Festival. As the main Friday night attraction, Ms. Spalding sold out Portland's 880-set Newmark theater within days of winning the Best New Artist Grammy award earlier this month. She played music from her latest record, Chamber Music Society, and captivated her hometown crowd throughout the 90-minute performance.

    Earlier that day, Spalding joined five other musicians -- Don Byron, Oran Etkin, Darrell Grant, Anat Cohen and Yuval Cohen -- for a conversation about the meaning of the festival's theme, "Bridges and Boundaries: Jewish and African Americans Playing Music Together." Oregon Music News recorded the whole thing, and you can listen to it online. It is a fascinating discussion of the issues that musicians face in dealing with cross-cultural performance.

    But back to the main event: with the capacity crowd buzzing, Spalding opened with a carefully-choreographed entrance onto a large recliner situated at stage left, taking off her coat and shoes and sipping from a glass of wine while her backing string trio played a brooding chorale. She then took center stage, playing melodically on her bass and singing in her characteristic style: wispy, melodically complex, emotive.

    Although she has endured criticism from some jazz musicians for not being jazzy enough, the harmonies underlying her music are decidedly jazz. Her ability to enmesh those sounds with the calculated, through-composed, virtusoic and culturally-elevated status of chamber music gives the music its art-meets-pop flavor.

    Her bouncy, vibrant presence commanded energetic performances from the rest of the band -- including the musical guest of honor, her former improvisation teacher Darrell Grant, sitting in on piano. Grant's piano playing, in the vein of McCoy Tyner, further grounded the performance in jazz sounds, adding a welcome dimension to the performance.

    Spalding's music is already interesting, yet it also possesses the quality of something with room to grow and evolve -- in a good way! Any jazz lover can relish the thought of what her music will sound like in five or ten years -- once she has the opportunity to further explore this musical territory. For now, though, she lives up to her billing as one of today's most exciting new artists.

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