Esperanza Spalding

Joan Sutherland Theatre, June 4


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Esperanza Spalding. Photo: Prudence Upton.

No show has had a high-contrast beginning, middle and end quite like this. Of course it’s not often one’s middle name becomes the catalyst not just for a new persona, but for a whole body of work. Esperanza Spalding took time out from her success as a singer, songwriter and bassist in the area where jazz grinds hips with r’n’b. While kicking back she let her inner Emily come out: an alter ego who generated Emily’s D+Evolution, a batch of songs sounding rather like Joni Mitchell collaborated with Robert Fripp.

Gone were the breezy Latin/jazz/funk grooves and the wild Afro hair of the woman called Esperanza, replaced by the braids and oversized spectacles of a girl called Emily.

We actually watched it happen. An Afro-ed Esperanza glided on stage in a gown the size of a family tent. This she pulled over her head and, while some music boiled around her, she pupated into Emily. It was a stunningly theatrical opening and way of jettisoning all that the first decade of her career represented, to become the cute, girlish, gawky and rocky Emily.

But then the show went pear-shaped. You see for all their rhythmic complexity and textural abrasiveness these new songs are fundamentally lyric-based, and, other than on the more nuanced Unconditional Love, we could barely catch a word Emily sang. If guitarist Matt Stevens and drummer Justin Tyson dropped right away the lyrics briefly came into vague focus, but in terms of reaching a conceptual understanding it was about as illuminating as a speech by Donald Trump.

This is not to say the compositions weren’t original and interesting. It’s just that the whole project was being shot in the foot by her gorgeous voice being submerged in the mix.

Given that there could be no encore from a band (completed by three backing singers) committed only to D+Evolution material, Spalding eventually returned by herself for an a cappella version of her setting of William Blake’s Little Fly. It stole the show.