Friday, November 19, 2010

Beyond Good and Evil

Esperanza Spalding Chamber Music Society + Zoe Rahman – London Jazz Festival, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank, London. Saturday 13th November 2010

I’d heard lots of good things about pianist Zoe Rahman in recent years, so I was really pleased to see she was opening this double bill playing solo. The plaudits are justified, as she was great. Her playing is strident and strong, with heaps of dynamic and harmonic variety. There was plenty of tasty swing bluesy phrasing in there, but also lots of ethnic piquancy that really adds to sound palette. She really worked the timbral and textural potential of the piano into her playing too, making for an engaging solo set that many couldn’t match without accompaniment.

Zoe Rahman

Terms such as ‘prodigy’, ‘natural’, ‘gifted’ and so on get bandied around all too easily (sometimes by myself), but the amazing Esperanza Spalding has a fair right to those labels. At the concert she mesmorised the entire Queen Elizabeth Hall with ease from the start. She frequently sings either solo or accompanied just by her own double bass, and on these occasions you could hear a pin drop over the quiet hum of the hall’s sound system, it’s mains noise filters not usually exposed to such scrutiny by an audience listening so intently. What makes this even more remarkable is that much of her material is complex and quite difficult listening. Her melodies are constantly surprising, going off in all sorts of directions, and rarely follow conventional resolutions. Although they’re very different artists, it’s the same ability Polar Bear have to make what might be heavy listening very accessible.

Esperanza Spalding

A case in point would be the track ‘Knowledge of Good and Evil’, where Spalding sang a melody that dipped and weaved over a fairly hard to grasp chord sequence, but she made it work wonderfully. Same with the restless ‘Chacarera’. The technical ability required to deliver the tricky lines is demanding enough, but the way she manages to breath life and soul into them is stunning.

A minor but not insignificant downside was that Spalding’s star quality appeared to inhibit the band somewhat. Leonardo Genovese on piano and Richard Barshay on drums were perfectly acceptable, but never really sparkled. Similarly, the string trio of Olivia de Prato (violin), Lois Martin (viola) and Jody Redhage (cello) got the job done perfectly well, but didn’t catch one’s ear. Guest star Gretchen Parlato was closest to giving Spalding a run for her money when she joined for a delightful vocal duet on Jobim’s ‘Inútil Paisagem’. I’m not usually inclined to use the word, but this performance was awesome in the true sense. Spalding returns for concert at the Barbican in April next year that would be worth checking out.

Zoe Rahman and Esperanza Spalding photos copyright © 2010 Emile Holba.

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