‘Emily’ At The Yards: A high point of DC Jazz Festival 2015

Esperanza Spalding redefines new era of jazz performance in her colorful, performance-art outdoor show recently staged at the District’s Southeast Waterfront.

"Emily," aka, Esperanza Spalding, at DC Navy Yard. (Photo credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)

WASHINGTON, June 30, 2015 – On a hazy 90-degree June afternoon, Esperanza Spalding redefined the new age of jazz performance, performing her latest show as part of the DC JAZZFEST At the Yards recently staged at the District’s Southeast Waterfront. Part of a one-two musical punch with Common, Spalding—currently touring as “Emily”—gave Old Skool jazz traditionalists like this reviewer a window into what to expect from new age artists at a contemporary jazz festival.

"Emily," with backdrop of rainbow volcano during recent DC JAZZFEST performance.
“Emily,” with backdrop of rainbow volcano during recent DC JAZZFEST performance. (Photo credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)

Her performance here happened roughly a month into her summer “D+Evolution” tour as her most recent persona, Emily. The tour is intended to depict a musical journey that started in San Francisco and is scheduled to wrap this holiday weekend in New Orleans.

On her current tour, the multi-talented, shape-shifting Spalding is taking the character of “Emily,” channeling her inner child by using her middle name, and casting herself in a time-machine “play” that incorporates video and movement into cutting-edge performance art.

In her introduction, available via the YouTube video below, she explains, “We are putting on a play, sort of. It’s influenced by the surreal poetry movement out of New York and I challenge you to come as the child you always wanted to be. Feel free to play – it’s play time!”

Taken together, her tour and her performance here are serving as a preview to her as-yet-to-be-released “Emily’s D+Evolution” album. During her Jazz Fest performance, Spalding teased and confused the audience with a series of musical vignettes, including an ironic graduation scene that satirized her rise from a sickly, home-schooled child earning a GED to her current life as a rising star who successfully applied and was accepted into the Berklee College of Music.

Using a bust of Socrates, a bellhop’s cap, and a flower headdress as stage props, Spalding came across to me as a modern-day female version of Prince as she displayed her childlike inner geek Emily persona and had fun by mocking her fashion-plate reputation by sporting oversized bright dayglow-green Fearless Fly shades, a rose petal-festooned jumpsuit, and a black bustier tank topped off by a crown of wild dreads.

“I was taught to be aware of the noble savage, but not the Noble Noble. God wants you to live your life. Stop the fear, In an instant it could be over,” she sang in lyrical interludes between performing odd-job, theatrical roles as a Scott Joplin-style piano player and bartender in a Prohibition Era dive in Detroit, donning an elevator operator’s cap, playing stand-up piano and clearing the bar, all in a manic rage.

That vignette began to unfold after Spalding’s opening half-hour of jazz funk and fusion, punched up on a series of bass guitars that were as wide as she was tall. She deployed the movement of her backup singers against super-graphic backdrops of exploding volcanoes and cold, steel-grey industrial machinery cranking out bullets and ball bearings to vigorously and joyfully underscore her childlike musical and dramatic themes.

Purring on a fake e-cigar, she sang, “Whiskey has been pouring for the good and evil, the bartender can’t give it away. Hang around this empty bar and lock it up as the ashes of a dead cigar!”—free-associating as church bells rang out to introduce the next vignette, where she raised prayerful hands skyward, playing out a religious theme against the projection of a Christ-like image depicting a man with a cross balanced on his shoulder. It was all quite a trip for her fascinated and enthusiastic audience.

After Esperanza’s performance, I was ready to close down my coverage of the DC Jazz Fest. I had just witnessed the most innovative and dynamic fusion of performance jazz I’ve ever experienced on a modern stage. Her nearly two-hour magic carpet ride of choreographed funk, blues, classic rock and stylized vocals completely redefined jazz performance art and left the audience nearly breathless. Where could you go after this?

I must admit that when I first saw the lineup pairing Spalding and rap and hip-hop artist COMMON as the featured weekend performers, I was a little mystified.

I started out the year covering the 25th anniversary of the Berks Jazz Fest, which featured such well known smooth jazz performers as Boney James, Brian Culbertson, Four Play and Wynton Marsalis who played at the first Berks festival in 1990. So with that in mind, I started wondering, what does COMMON have to do with a jazz festival?

Then I remembered, DC hasn’t had a popular jazz station since Smooth Jazz 105.9 was shuttered in the middle of the night in December, 2009. Maybe things have evolved in a way we haven’t seen since then.

COMMON, during recent DC JAZZFEST performance .
COMMON, during recent DC JAZZFEST performance at the DC Navy Yard. (Photo Credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)

At any rate, I found out this weekend that COMMON actually turned out to be the perfect, high-octane compliment to Esperanza’s stylish, undercard performance. COMMON delivered a Lady’s Night day-party performance that the overflow crowd of predominantly female patrons had come to see, as he rapped his 90s classics from the 90s all the way through his Golden Globe award-winning SELMA movie track for the film, “Glory.”

This southside Chicago native, known to his family and friends as Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., even took the time to invite a female audience member named Candy—who also was from Chicago—up to the stage for an extended dance and serenade session after blasting through his hard charging opening 15 minutes of vintage rap.

I must admit, that my opinion of what defines a contemporary jazz festival has been drastically altered by the recently-concluded 10th annual DC Jazz Fest, which abandoned the mass appeal of the kind of free Mall events it mounted several years ago, exchanging them for reasonably priced and ticketed, celebrity driven waterside venues such as The Yards as part of its vibrant new vision.

Conclusion: Despite the high humidity—including tropical temperatures that soared well into the 90s—and a first-come, first-claim sprawling lawn in place of conventional seating, the JAZZFEST At The Yards worked magnificently.

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