Bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding is currently on tour presenting her new album Emily’s D+Evolution, and we were there to see her when she performed at the Mezzanine in San Francisco.
With the rhythm section laying down a driving pattern, Spalding emerged into a cloud of fog, immediately launching into one of her complex syncopated never-quite-resolving melodies. Her colorful costume with glasses and crown seemed a bit baffling at first, but it made sense in the context of the album’s “protagonist” Emily D, a fanciful alter ego. The songs weave together a non-linear narrative, but each work well individually. Many had her characteristic fast runs of notes running in counterpoint to the rhythm section; but perhaps the ones that spoke to me most strongly were the ballads like Unconditional Love and Judas. In some ways, the ballads are just slowed down and more mellifluous interpretations of her fast style.
Theatrical elements played an important part of the performance, and not only stage presence, lighting and sets. The supporting singers had roles as soloists and characters in various songs. And one in particular featured a unique element for a live jazz+rock show: puppets. A small puppet stage was rolled out for one song, with one puppet a miniature Esperanza Spalding / Emily D and the other a male character who appeared to be a figure of authority.
Books were a recurring theme, in the piece with the puppet show and as live props throughout. A bookshelf sat behind the singers, and at one point early in the set Spalding hoists one into the air.
The energy level never let up, even for the slowest, quietest songs in the performance. It thus flew by quickly. It was a sensory whirlwind, but as a jazz geek I found myself most focused on her bass playing and the rhythms and harmonies from the group as a whole.
Both levels of Mezzanine (yes, the club does match its name) were packed, which added to the dizzying effect of the performance’s theater. And one could tell most of the audience must have been as pleased to be there as we were.
This was the first of three big shows we saw over the course of a single week, and was a great start. We hope to bring reviews from the other two shortly.