Esparanza sinks in a sea of hype

2011-04-02 11:02

As South African music lovers got wind of what was billed the musical thrill of the season – Esparanza Spalding’s performance at the 12th Cape Town International Jazz Festival – it was clear that Spalding was the organisers’ golden goose.

The jazz bassist came with much hype.

Her super-stardom was cemented by her much-celebrated triumph as this year’s best new artist at the Grammy’s?– a win that came with a media frenzy of its own.

Last Saturday, Spalding made her first South African appearance when she stepped onto Rosie’s stage at the festival.

From serious jazzophiles and casual listeners to tried-and-tested festival patrons and youthful tourists out for a thrill, opinions varied as to whether Spalding lived up to the hype.

Youthful house-music fans, who encountered her by accident, were thrilled, while some demanding jazz ­aficionados loathed her.

Spalding stepped on stage and sat momentarily on a couch, took off her high heels, coat and scarf, then popped the cork on a bottle of red wine before proceeding to play.

This was all part of her routine, about which one observer remarked: “It was pretentious nonsense, she should just play the music.”

A cute girl from Oregon, Spalding has real talent. She plays bass in Joe Lovano’s quintet, Us Five, which has just ­released an album.

She displays good chops in that band, has a string of at least three releases as band leader and counts jazz elder Pat Metheny as an encouraging voice in her ear.

She’s also one of the youngest professors ever to teach at the legendary Berklee College of Music.

But in Cape Town her set was comparable to a university student’s end-of-year recital.

She had all the elements right but came across as someone dearly in need of life experience.

Her festival set comprised music from her latest album, Chamber Music Society, a lovely CD if you can get it.

Spalding brought along an ensemble that included a string section ­comprising two violinists, a ­cellist and herself on contrabass and vocals.

Leo Genovese played piano, Richie Barshay ran the drums while Leala Cyr backed with vocals.

As the title of the set suggested, it explored chamber music and included very little of the blues tradition.

Spalding and her band, though lovely, didn’t deliver much soul.

Even when they were in their stride, they showed only a glimpse of promise.

By the end of the set I couldn’t help ­feeling that the golden goose had been drowned in a sea of hype.

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