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Host Dee Dee Bridgewater is probably the world’s sexiest 59-year-old bald woman.
24-year-old Esperanza Spalding‘s star is rising—-she’s the youngest-ever instructor at Berklee; has appeared on Letterman and Kimmel; and played the White House twice this year. It’s not hard to see why, since she’s even more talented than she is charming and self-confident.
But she’s also callow. Spalding’s dexterous bass playing was completely overshadowed last night by her singing (probably deliberately so, since both acoustic and electric bass were terribly miked), challenging her own statement that bass is her focus and singing is a lark. Unfortunately, her singing needs work; she subserviated it so much to the rhythm, reciting fast and indistinctly, that the lyrics lost too much meaning. She’s also too absorbed in her own material: Spalding’s imaginative 5/4 arrangement of “Body & Soul” was the highlight of her set, and one of only two non-originals. She could use more apprenticeship in the standard repertoire, along with some artistic restraint. But that’s okay…a Women in Jazz Festival should be about potential, too.
Clarinetist/saxophonist Anat Cohen is also young—-34—-but has mastered her craft, including leadership of the 16-piece Anzic Orchestra. Their “pan-American” set included Latin showpieces, standards, and classic jazz tunes made famous by Johnny Griffin and Benny Goodman. At her best, though, Cohen combined these styles in medleys: “Marie en la Playa” met “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” and in the showstopper, “Samba de Orfeo” segued into Louis Armstrong‘s “Struttin’ with Some Bar-B-Q” (with excellent trumpet soloing by Freddy Hendrick and Cohen’s brother Avishai.) But Cohen always kept the spotlight, her clarinet both searching and growling, sly and ponderous. She’s seems better every time she picks up the axe, making up for her surprisingly nondescript style on tenor sax.
One quarter of schmaltz-pop-jazz group Manhattan Transfer, Janis Siegel is just about the same in solo performance. Her accompanists (pianist Edsel Gomez, bassist Drew Gress, drummer Steve Hass) were fantastic and would make a great trio unto themselves. But Siegel was feverishly melodramatic, particularly on the opening “Hidden Place,” where she fused Barbra Streisand‘s oversinging with Diane Keaton‘s overacting. The rest of the set, which included Stevie Wonder‘s “I Cant’ Help It” and the potboiler “Jeepers Creepers,” was slightly more subdued without really being much less ridiculous. Getting it out of the way on the first night was just as well.