Performance Vivid Live, Sydney Opera House, Joan Sutherland Theatre, 4 June 2016
On a wild and windy night in Sydney, in fact, so wild that they actually turned off the Vivid Lights, Emily (Esperanza Spalding’s alter ego) took us to a magical, sometimes childlike and ultimately hope filled place.
In this brave new world her lyrics, “No more acting these predictable roles” was reflected in the performance we witnessed. Unlike most jazz performances , this was an unfolding musical tableaux, where the movement and theatricality formed part of our experience. From the opening scene where Spalding floated onto the stage in a black flowing gown and Afro . This costume was shed and the ruffles reinvented into a teepee, from which a funky, braided Esperanza emerged in slinky skin tight white jeans crawling out to face the world and play.
In an interview with NPR Spalding said of Emily. “I recognize that my job … is to be her arms and ears and voice and body.” As a child, Spalding created scenarios. These childhood performances used movement and dance. In Emily’s D+Evolution Spalding is singing through her muse. This is a fantasy world of games with a spiritual centre. This world is not perfect. In Judas the lyrics refer to “lonely roads’ we even have tantrums in a slightly sinister lilting version of I want it now a tune that originates from Willy Wonka.
Spalding has said Emily “is a spirit, or a being, or an aspect who I met, or became aware of,”
We journeyed through Emily’s world, our backdrop a bookcase, a fence, three primarily vocalists, dressed in yellow tracksuits. Through choreographed movement, think stylised Motown moves with a touch of Sidi Larbi and Dr Zeuss, we joined her world of play and imagination.
Matt Stevens on guitar and Justin Tyson on drums underpinned the performance, with Tyson only really having a chance to let loose on the final number, a groove Funk the Fear. For this was more of a concept album performance, an ensemble piece without the traditional jazz solo format.
The joy of watching and hearing Spalding is in her capacity to move with ease from musical genres. She has established herself as an understated force in contemporary jazz and soul. The songs performed told tales, each having their own identity from the word chanting preceding “Ebony and Ivy,” through to “Good Lava,” using a dissonant guitar riff, thumping drums, and a lurching time signature.
Spalding shrugs at societal constraints, urging you to “live your life” on the chorus of “Funk the Fear” and to shed preconceived notions of who we’re supposed to be. On “One,” she embraces emotion “I’m not lacking in love,” she sings, “not haunted by its pain … life’s given me enough, I can’t complain.”
Comfortable in her own skin, Spalding delivers with conviction. With a roll of her shoulders, a stylised move, not quite a moon walk but cat like and sinuous she commands the stage. She sings with wily melodic turns, a melange of spoken word, R&B hooks, dizzying vocal ascents and phrasing reminiscent of Joni Mitchell with compositions that could have been inspired by Wayne Shorter.
So, in this Australian premiere, did she live up to the hype? Without a doubt the audience were entranced and left wanting more. We were offered a beautiful a cappella solo as a tantalising encore from Esperanza’s world.
For me it was a perfect combination of performance and music, extremely satisfying to the soul and senses. It was definitely worth braving the wild and windy night. If you get a chance to see Esperanza Spalding live take it!
Esperanza Spalding, bass / vocals
Matt Stevens, guitar
Justin Tyson, drums
Emily Elbert, vocals
Corey King, vocals
Shawna Corso, vocals
Images by Prudence Upton