On just about any scale, singers get the edge, and that made Esperanza Spalding's triumph on the mainstage Saturday a foregone conclusion. You can argue over the pop qualities of her homonymous major-label debut, but jazz's current It girl knows how to play (bass, in case you hadn't heard). And yes, she's chic and stage-savvy. ("That's the first note," she told a blasting boat horn in the harbor before one song, and then, when the blasts kept coming, "You're sharp. But that's cool.") So when the cameras projected her face on the jumbotron, head tilted back, eyes closed and mouth open as she let loose a long, held high note underlined by keyboardist Leo Genovese's synth, well, it was game, set, match, Ms. Spalding.
THE IT FACTOR Esperanza Spalding’s triumph on the main stage was a foregone conclusion.
The jumbotron's abetting of visual music didn't hurt pianist Michel Camilo, either. His bravura chops are always a crowd pleaser, especially when you can see them on the big screen — blurring double octaves, keyboard-length glissandi. But Camilo always earns his big moments with sharp bebop detail, solid arrangements, and great grooves, whether he's fashioning a descarga for Tito Puente (with a beautifully deployed recurring quote of "Oye Como Va") or bringing out Joe Lovano for a rousing "Night in Tunisia."
Bruising virtuosity and great grooves earn a lot of capital on the big stage, and they can carry you into the music's most abstract outer reaches. Vandermark has been rearing his little band of Chicago renegades in church basements, alternative performance spaces, and rock clubs for the past 12 years, and on the Harbor Stage he proved that with a great groove you can go just about anywhere. His band alternated rock-beat ostinato rhythms with hard walking-bass swing, one section releasing into the next, often demarcated by anthemic fanfares from him and fellow saxophonist Dave Rempis. Following the especially rocking number "Cement" by drummer Tim Daisy — with a skronking, guitar-hero turn from cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm — a pre-teen female voice from the audience shouted, "Hey, that was awesome!" Put 'em on the big stage, I say.
Sometimes, I sorely missed that groove. Pianist Vijay Iyer's trio — thoughtful, inward — made you lean forward. When they played a tune from a musical "about race and immigration in New York City," the melody to "Somewhere" groped forward in a hesitant rubato, making it clear that it remains to be seen whether "there's a place for us." This was an introspective deconstruction of a piece that can easily turn corny. But elsewhere the music sagged. Even Julius Hemphill's blistering vamp "Dogon A.D." was subdued.
I could also have used more bottom end from Iyer's frequent collaborator, Rudresh Mahanthappa. This was Mahanthappa's Indo-Pak Coalition, also on the Harbor Stage, with guitarist Rez Abbasi and percussionist Dan Weiss joining the leader's alto — and no bass player. Here were long, rhythmically and melodically complicated lines with odd numbers of beats over guitar drones, raga style. Mahanthappa's tone, even his phrasing, is classic bebop, big and fat, with chewy articulation. And the band did everything they could to set those tricky lines in your ear, repeating them in guitar and tablas. But for me the tunes really took off only when Weiss — sitting crouched or cross-legged at a unusual mixed drum set — added bass drum or ride cymbal to his multi-hued tabla mix.