Esperanza Spalding wants to prepare her listeners for something different with her new Chamber Music Society (Heads Up). She made that clear at Sanders Theatre Saturday night. The show opened with a violinist, violist, and cellist playing on a darkened stage as Spalding mounted the steps at stage left, turned on a reading lamp, took off her jacket, poured herself a glass of wine, took a seat in an easy chair, kicked off her shoes, and sat back to listen.
In interviews, Spalding has implied that Chamber Music Society would be a bit more demanding on listeners than her pop-leaning 2009 Heads Up debut, with a different, low-key mood, and "no sing-alongs." She's in a good position to make those demands: Esperanza had a healthy run on the contemporary jazz charts, her press has extended beyond the cover of Downbeat to a feature story in the New Yorker, and she's played both Barack Obama's White House and the festivities surrounding his Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo. Her show at the 1165-seat Sanders was sold out in advance.
The night was demanding, but not in the way that's usually implied by what's called "difficult" music. This was not free-jazz or atonal classical. Rather, it made its demands by being resolutely low-key — all hovering around the same subdued dynamics and mostly ballad tempos. Getting up from her chair, Spalding walked center stage, put her glass of wine on a stool, picked up her bass, stepped over to take another sip (getting some appreciative laughter), then launched into the new album's appropriately nursery-rhyme setting of William Blake's "Little Fly." That might have been the most "pop" tune in the set, which tended toward introspective art songs — i.e., familiar pop or folk chord changes, gently percolating Latin rhythms, string or vocal harmonies (from back-up singers Leala Cyr and Gretchen Parlato), but no obvious verse-chorus hooks, and few explicit grooves.
The temperature rose on Spalding's extravagant vocal/bass improvisations, and when drummer Terri Lyne Carrington joined in to push those rhythms or pianist Leo Genovese took an extended solo at a faster than medium tempo. But even Spalding's duet with Parlato on Jobim's "Inútil Paisagem" stripped the piece down to its samba rhythm and passing fragments of its familiar melody.
Spalding's exit was the reverse of her entrance: she put her jacket and shoes back on and stepped into the darkness while the strings played. When she came back to introduce the band, it was the first time she'd spoken to the audience all night. You could see she wanted to present this 90-minute performance as an unbroken narrative. The encore — a bass-and-voice performance of Johnny Mercer's "Midnight Sun" (to music by Lionel Hampton and Sonny Burke) — was another familiar pop-jazz tune that you could call "hookless." But Spalding's virtuoso performance — full-bodied, long-toned vocals accompanied by flurries of bass counterpoint — was a well-earned dessert.