Isabella Stewart Gardner Rise Concert Series features Ysaye Barnwell and Esperanza Spalding
A century ago, Isabella Stewart Gardner hosted salon-style musical soirees in her Venetian palazzo on the Fenway. Her tradition continues with the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s RISE series of pop, rock and hip-hop concerts. Last Wednesday’s RISE concert featured two musical guests of worldwide acclaim: Ysaye Barnwell, co-founder of the iconic African American a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, and four-time Grammy Award-winning bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding.
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For more information about the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s RISE concert series, visit: www.gardnermuseum.org/music/rise
The sold-out show was rescheduled from February 9, when it was cancelled due to a blizzard. Nevertheless, that weekend, while the city was still digging out, Barnwell led one of her renowned community sings at the Gardner, conducting a capacity audience in choral renderings of African American songs and chants.
RISE concerts are held in Calderwood Hall, a sleek cube-shaped space designed by Renzo Piano as part the museum’s new wing, which opened in 2012. On the first level, the audience surrounds performers on three sides, and behind them, pastel lights play on the walls. On upper levels, audience seating on all four sides overlooks the performers.
Wednesday’s two-hour program opened with a brief spoken word and dance performance by poet Askia M. Touré and dancer Wyoma, presented by Northeastern University’s African American Master Artists-in-Residence Program. Dashiki-clad Touré stepped into the center of the room and read his poem, “Wind Chant: A Diva,” an homage to the earth, as Wyoma, butterfly-like in a diaphanous rose-colored costume, whirled and somersaulted to the cadence of his voice.
Next came Boston-based soul and R&B funk group, A-Beez, a deservedly popular house band at venerable jazz pub Wally’s, in Boston’s South End. Pianist Amy Bellamy and her husband Aaron, a bassist, performed with Matt Williams on drums, guitarist Wayne Jones and vocalist Mellisa Bolling.
The ensemble took immediate command of the space with an irresistible, funky groove that proved to be merely its starting point. Swinging, danceable and eminently listenable, they began with two compositions by Amy Bellamy and then delivered inventive versions of two pop songs, the iconic “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” by Nirvana, and “Crazy in Love,” a hit by Beyoncé.
Attired in black lace, Bolling enjoyed a fine interplay with the band, including extended passages of give-and-take with Bellamy on piano, her voice shifting as each song warranted from a slow, chugging beat to melodic flights and gospel-inflected trills. As she belted, “I think I know why I’m feelin’ so high,” so did her audience. Pianist Bellamy opened the Nirvana classic with an introspective solo and then led a rich exploration of its dirge-like and lyrical qualities. As the band descended into a passage of propulsive fury, Bolling’s voice ascended into a high-pitched scat before returning, with the ensemble, to the song’s closing refrain.
After a brief intermission, Barnwell and Spalding took over, backed by Brazilian percussionist Nêgah Santos, Berklee ’17, versatile and precise on her assortment of hand drums; and guitarist Jim Peterson, a Berklee professor of music, whose spare, responsive accompaniment made each note matter.
Barnwell, 70, is a female bass who uses her voice as if it were an upright acoustic bass, the instrument that Spalding, 32, most often plays while singing with her light, liquid alto. Although this concert was their first performance together, Spalding has said that her mother raised her to Sweet Honey recordings. Together with Santos and Peterson, Barnwell and Spalding demonstrated how with the simplest of tools — voice, strings and drums — musicians concoct sublimity.
Barnwell came first with a brief and powerful set. With her shaved head and sober, elegant attire — a black floor-length garment and a silver-threaded jacket that resembled a vestment, Barnwell had a priestly presence. She entered chanting the spiritual “Kumbaya.” Carrying on a conversation with the audience, Barnwell explained that the old song was an invocation, and she treated the evening as a gathering rather than a concert. Sitting on a stool, she sang a ballad by Canadian folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie, “Until It’s Time for You to Go,” to Peterson’s delicate guitar accompaniment. Although the song tells of a woman who yields her dream of a lasting relationship for one destined to come apart, Barnwell’s version purged the song of victimhood.
When Barnwell moved, it was with purpose, such as when, deftly backed by Peterson and Santos, she strode slowly while singing “The Star Spangled Banner” to the tempo of a funeral march, turning the national anthem into a protest song.
Spalding, who had been watching, began with a song that celebrated love, beating its rhythm with her hands on her bass. As she reached its final chorus, she leaned toward Barnwell and sang, “I’m falling in love with you right now.”
A wiry young woman with a big Afro, Spalding wore a loose-fitting pastel dress and white platform shoes and handled her towering bass with light, bird-like movements that were as agile as her fast-moving vocals. Exuding warmth, joy and gleeful showmanship, Spalding demonstrated the range of her chops. While some of her selections were decades old, each sounded fresh and new. She nimbly performed a challenging bebop masterpiece by Bob Dorough, “Nothing Like You,” and also sang a delightful version of Oscar Brown, Jr.’s high-spirited bebop hit, “Forbidden Fruit.”
Recalling her first winter in Boston as a Berklee student, Spalding, a native of Portland, Oregon, said that she was “shocked” by the cold. Yet she was consoled by befriending students from all over the world and a song by Argentinean singer Liliana Herrero, “Cantore de Yala,” which she rendered in a plaintive tone.
Many in the audience joined her as she sang “Black Gold,” from her latest album, with its refrain telling young black women to “Hold your head as high as you can.” Prompting a standing ovation, the song is an anthem in the making.
Barnwell injected her piping bass into Spalding’s last song, the Stevie Wonder classic, “Overjoyed.” As she and Spalding reached its closing chorus, with Peterson on guitar and Santos shaking a tambourine, the evening ended with an exalting finale.