|Esperanza Spalding with her beautiful afro.|
Last night, Esperanza Spalding showcased ten new songs to a sold-out house of young fans and older Jazz aficionados, all were eager to hear the “prodigy from Portland” perform as the headlining act of the 92y Soul Jazz Festival. What was most amazing about last night’s performance, wasn’t the reaction to Spalding’s new music, but the new appearance (or persona) of the artist herself.
Spalding is a world-renowned vocalist, bassist, and composer whose melodic voice and compositions have a growing and dedicated following of fans. Her sound is soulful, melodic, diverse, and honest. I’m not totally familiar with Spalding’s work, but from what I’ve heard, I’m intrigued and fortunate to have had the opportunity to be exposed to her new material last night.
Spalding, like most celebrities, has a distinct image. Elvis had his hair and swaying hips. And Sinatra was rarely without cigarette and cocked fedora. Invariably, the public begins to associate certain character attributes, codes or images to these popular figures - Spalding is no exception to these rules and customs of our celebrity culture.
Instead of enjoying Spalding’s powerful and moving set, the audience was consistently distracted by this “new Spalding.” Throughout the show, I was approached by over fifteen members of the audience (no exaggeration) who honestly believed that the performer on stage was “not Esperanza Spalding!”
Admittedly, Esperanza was workshopping new songs (e.g., some of my favorites were “Shine,” “Vanishing Point,” and “Funk the Fear,” which did seem to awaken the crowd from its self-induced shock). Accordingly, the material was unfamiliar to even her most ardent of fans. Also, someone introduced her to the crowd at the start of the show under a pseudonym (which I didn’t catch, but heard later from my colleagues and some patrons.) Needless to say, this “new” Spalding wasn’t so new that you couldn’t appreciate her work as her work. She still played the electric bass with the same elegance, ease, and expertise that only Spalding can achieve.
What happened last night was Spalding, the artist, workshopped a new image and sound that her fans were not ready for. Perhaps Spalding’s transition was not as dramatic as Bob Dylan moving from acoustic to electric guitar, or the Beatles remaking themselves as "the Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band." This is the artist challenging the comforts and conventions we hold over them and expect them to adhere to. Think of David Bowie’s transition to “Ziggy Stardust,” or even Beyonce’s “Sasha Fierce.” Spalding was moving her fans outside of their comfort zones and by doing so, scared them.
Most surprisingly was the obvious and unmentioned - power of the afro (or, in this case, lack there of!) Yes, Spalding appeared last night sans afro, with straight hair, parted straight down the middle. She wore thick, neon-green “hipster” specks. Spalding’s striking, beautiful afro has become her unofficial trademark. So when her fans saw her hair straightened-out and shiny it shocked them. At first, I thought it might just be a thing that old, white people couldn’t get over and were somehow confused by. But when older black women started approaching me, insisting the woman on stage was “not Esperanza Spalding!” I started to really feel like the joke was on the crowd and that Spalding was really onto something smart.
Spalding not only challenged the comfortable codes of celebrity culture last night by changing her appearance, she also forced her audience to look beyond her hair and the unsaid racial associations this hairdo inspires. Spalding may have arguably angered and offended some of her fans, but she got them talking. I for one think she looks great with either hairdo, but I can understand the implicit message this type of code-changing signifies to a large part of Spalding’s audience and American society as a whole.
Judging from last night’s performance, Esperanza's new music held the crowd’s attention enough for them to sit through the set, even if many of them honestly thought they were seeing someone entirely different. What one could also tell from last night’s set that Esperanza Spalding is an artistic and musical force to be reckoned with and she is not just out to please, but to challenge us.