Esperanza Spalding – showmanship without the fluff

Wednesday night, Grammy Award winning bassist Esperanza Spalding performed with her group “Chamber Music Society” at The University of Richmond.


Wednesday night, Grammy Award winning bassist Esperanza Spalding and her “Chamber Music Society” performed in the Camp Concert Hall at The University of Richmond. For all of the talents Spalding possesses as a musician, her showmanship stood out in front of a sold out audience.

The event began in total darkness. Spalding stealthily snuck on stage, turned on a lamp, poured a glass of wine, took off her coat and sat down in a red leather reading chair. Immediately, every member of the audience must have known they were in for something different.

While Spalding sat, violinist Sara Caswell, violist Lois Martin, and cellist Jody Redhage began lightly playing a gentle melody. Slowly the lights faded, the music stopped, pianist Leo Genovese, drummer Richie Barshay, and singer Leala Cyr entered, and Spalding again stealthily moved across the stage. This time instead of sitting, she picked up her bass and began playing.

With classical, jazz, pop, and “world” influences, the music had a truly unique sound. She played upright bass while singing, an extremely uncommon combination that provided her many unique musical opportunities. Her bass lines almost always created a beautiful counterpoint with the melody she was singing, and there was a constant rhythmic conversation between her bass and her voice.

On the third song, she leaned her bass against a chair and began hitting it with her hands like a percussion instrument. The pianist and drummer joined the groove, and before long Spalding was lightly dancing with a microphone in hand. In an impressive show of skill she began singing an intricate melody doubled perfectly by the pianist. The song gradually deconstructed just as quickly as it was built until members of the band were only clapping out a rhythm.

Spalding picked up her bass and for the first time all night began playing with a bow. With every song, she brought something unique to the texture, whether it was whistling, clapping, beat boxing or talking in an undefinable manner–somewhere between rap and a lullaby.

The highlight of the night came on the sixth tune as vocalist Leala Cyr reappeared at the front of the stage and began singing unaccompanied towards Esperanza Spalding. The two gently delivered a back and forth as Cyr began clapping and Spalding entered on bass. The relaxed sounds of a bossa nova eased the mood, and the rest of band tastefully entered.

Throughout the night, Spalding’s approach to orchestration was breath taking. By combining sounds as different as her smooth voice and a rough melodica, or a fender rhodes and a viola, every tune truly explored the imagination of the listener.

After the most groove oriented and up beat song of the night, the lights went out, Spalding snuck across stage, sat down in the same chair, and the string trio began playing the melody from the beginning of the evening.

The lights faded out, the set was over but the crowd wanted more. After much applause, only Esperanza Spalding and Leo Genovese returned to the stage. Without her bass, the two began a song dedicated to “everyone who needs the message.”

It is inspiring to see a performance of original music with such conviction. Spalding only spoke once and it was to introduce her band. Jokes, anecdotes, long stories, and all of the things associated with a good front man/woman were ignored as the larger story and music took preference.

Esperanza Spalding is the real deal and her “Chamber Music Society” is a must see.

Click here to purchase “Chamber Music Society” by Esperanza Spalding”

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Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams loves music, basketball (follow @rvaramnews!), family, learning, and barbecue sauce.

3 comments on Esperanza Spalding – showmanship without the fluff

  1. Jeb Hoge on said:

    And THAT, my friends, that is why she’s a Grammy winner over Bieber. Behold a generational talent.

  2. irishjazz on said:

    She is a brilliant player, and there were definite moments of power and beauty. But it was a lot of the same thing, a virtuoso delivery of middling love songs. Sure, she whistled in one, but it was much like the one before, a tumbling succession of mild romantic angst. One tragic/dramatic exception- Apple Blossoms- was painfully unconvincing; not even the apple trees in the sentiment-sodden lyrics were believable. Her idiosyncratic version of “Wild is the Wind” was powerful but her own “wind” song that followed was featherweight.

    When the show started with the Tom Waits/Laurie Anderson theatrics it seemed that Spaulding was going to deliver a truly intimate and imaginative performance. Instead it was mostly beautiful surface.

    I am certainly glad she won Best Artist over the awful Justin Beiber, She plays very well on the new Joe Lovano album. I wish her songwriting- so much the focus of the evening- was better.

  3. Aaron Williams on said:


    Honestly, it was very tough for me to hear the lyrics from the back row. I appreciate your input and understand the sentiment.

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