BDJ Festival, day 1: the double header

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Esperanza Spalding and Anat Cohen. Esperanza AND Anat.

I remember thinking that at the Discover Jazz Festival back in April, when the full lineup was rolled out for this year’s event. Really? Both of them, in the same show? Yes. At least, sort of. It was actually two very different but complementary shows last night on the Flynn Main Stage as the festival got off to a big bang start.

Anat first: strong, versatile, and commanding on both of her chosen instruments, clarinet and tenor sax. I always wait to hear what the very first notes of the festival will sound like, thinking of them as the defining moment in setting the tone for the whole event. Anat delivered the opening salvo with a fast downbeat and an immediate launch into her own lilting, grooving arrangement of Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” (found on her recent collection, Notes from the Village).

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Anat Cohen (photo by the Discover Jazz Festival)

So what does it say about this year’s festival that it began with the clarinet, a surprisingly rare instrument in jazz today? And not only that, but the clarinet in the hands of the first woman reeds player to ever headline at the hallowed Village Vanguard, playing her own fresh, hip new version of such a jazz classic? Everything, I think. This festival is about translating the best elements of the jazz tradition into the language and sensibilities of today. (Esperanza’s performance furthered that thought – more on that in a minute.)

Cohen’s quartet is equally solid, with Jason Lindner at the piano (you may have seen him here last year with his own trio), basisst Vicente Archer, and the very fine percussionist Daniel Freedman. I’m tempted to add ‘percussion’ to Lindner’s name here too because of his tendency to reach inside the piano, holding down the strings, while playing the keys with his left hand. The effect is pecussive,  sounding something like a marimba or tuned drum. Great texture, and used well especially at start of the set-closing “Washington Park Square”, the colorful tune Cohen wrote about her neighborhood in New York and the cultural diversity of people the Park attracts.

No matter what future festivals may hold, this will go down as one of my favorite festival performances ever.

Esperanza’s set started spunky (no surprise), with her scatting introduction of the band, along with a scatting disclaimer about why the scatting the audience was about to hear in her performance wasn’t the traditional “shoo-be-doo-be-ska-be-bop” kind. That’s a fact. Not much about her style is expected.

If you saw her here in 2007 (in the downstairs Flynn Space), you may remember that her show generated some serious buzz: everything from impressed excitement to some doubt that she could sustain that level of energy as she matured. There was criticism about her light, airy, singing style, her less-than-substantial music choices, and some expressed desire that she’d pick up a bow and take some time to explore that important side of the upright bass tradition.

Esperanza Spalding (photo by the Discover Jazz Festival)

Esperanza Spalding (photo by the Discover Jazz Festival)

Well, she has. Developed her singing style, expanded her musical range, and found a whole new dimension of expression with the bowed bass, which she employed to beautiful effect on Nina Simone’s “Wild is the Wind”. It was the standout moment in her show, starting with the dark, stirring bowing and evolving slowly like a love affair into the nearly out-of-control passionate love song it is. Powerful. Spalding’s energy and natural charm flow out from some bottomless inner wellspring, it’s not an act that will burn out. It’s who she is. To critics: next?

The ensemble included drummer Otis Brown; pianist Leo Genovese (he was here last time with her, too) and guitarist Ricardo Vogt. Each had some solo time to shine, and each did. A couple of thoughts on the overall experience: a lovely Brazilian duet could have used better mic balance, as Vogt’s delicate vocals were a bit overwhelmed by everything else. (At least, from where I was sitting about six rows back orchestra left.) Esperanza’s vocals were also indistinct at times but that’s less a mechanical issue than an effect of the fast, breathless singing style she’s creating. That same approach, with a little more control in shaping the individual words and the phrasing, could be the single nuance that would transform this from a high-beam performance into one with laser focus and effect.

Today: an outdoor organ recital at 3:30 (not related to the festival); jazz on the marketplace; an evening dance recital; and then live music somewhere around town tonight.

I’ll have a few more pictures to share today than I did from yesterday’s adventures (it was dark, I was tired.) Stay tuned for more about the music around town!

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