The life force that is Esperanza Spalding brought an enigmatic energy to the College of Charleston’s moss-laden Cistern Yard, ushering in the 2019 Spoleto Festival’s jazz series. She took her time to scan the audience, deciding her setlist in the moment, while warmly expressing, “I want to get to know you for a sec.” Donning a white jumpsuit with bold typeface exclaiming “LIFE FORCE” on the front and “FASHION IS FOSSIL FUEL” on the back, her message was clear. With her patchwork heart sewn boldly onto her sleeve, this performance would be on her terms.
She started with an intimate, one-woman acoustic-bass-and-vocal duet. Recovering from a cold and finding her footing in the classic outdoor venue filled with eager, sweaty patrons, Spalding seemed to float on the cloak of humidity with “Cantora de Yala,” a selection from her 2006 “Junjo” release, to open the set. The tune — about a singing woman’s daily pilgrimage, with Spanish lyrics by Argentinian Liliana Herrero — hearkened to Spalding’s original, familiar palette.
The audience breathed a collective sigh as her sweet, straight-toned, perfectly pitched voice delicately danced with her accompanying earthy bass. She mentioned her rocky relationship with her instrument over the past three years, but you would have never known that she was anything but one with her low-end vessel. With a Joni Mitchell cover and a visceral rendition of Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away,” Spalding was warmed up, calling upon a deep well of feminine energy.
Then came selections from her latest release, “12 Little Spells.”
“We’ll be pumping magic into the air,” Spalding exclaimed, before launching into “Dancing the Animal (for your mind).” Midway through the first “spell,” her bandmates filed to their instruments wearing grey jumpsuits with a red patch, segueing into what would be the electric portion of a curated healing session.
After a short instrumental vamp, Spalding returned in a flowy chiffon, tangerine-colored, sequin-breasted dress, visually embodying her feminine divine. Rather than stepping to her bass, she stepped to the center-stage microphone, and for most of the remainder of the set, she used her now-liberated arms to conduct along with an impressive mixture of quantum dissonant vocalese, lyrical intellectual and social commentary, and interpretive dance.
Undoubtedly under the spell of their leader, band members Morgan Guerin, Matthew Stevens and Marcus Gilmore — talented multi-instrumentalists and backing vocalists — provided a remarkable, unified layer of sound, a sonic cloud of comfort, freeing Spalding for boundless expression.
Spalding called on listeners to feel the music in the body-specific region for which each musical movement is titled: mind, thoracic spine, eyes, arms, solar plexus, hands, abdomen, ears. She called on us to submit to a natural intoxication — the spell, if you will. She moved those willing to relinquish control. She may have moved everyone with the sing-along chorus of “Thang (hips).”
“I think that’s it, thank you,” she said, and left the stage after closing “With Others.” Perhaps because perplexity showed on the faces of some in the audience and because of the peculiar energy at the end of her set, she did not return for an encore.