REVIEW: Esperanza Spalding, Ysaye Barnwell @ Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum 4/12


Continuing the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s RISE concert series, the innovative jazz phenom Esperanza Spalding and Ysaye Barnwell from the famous gospel acapella group Sweet Honey in the Rock collaborated for a very unique and engaging performance on April 12. Coming from two very different musical backgrounds, I was interested to see how they would work with each other. Despite this difference, both artists presented the theme of African American pride and faith in the face of injustice. This theme was especially apparent as Barnwell sang a funky version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” ironically substituting the line, “…and the home of the slave.”

However, although there was a central theme, the artists sounded much more separated than collaborated. The two artists spent little time playing together on the same songs and when they did, Barnwell’s backup vocals sounded timidly quiet. This surprised me because she had belted it out during all of her solo pieces. While I would have liked to see more collaboration, the quality of the music itself was exceptional.

Witnessing Spalding’s massive vocal range and unparalleled bass playing was a delightful experience. In addition, Barnwell’s powerful voice paired perfectly with her funky rhythmic delivery for punchy, memorable vocals. Lastly, the hand percussionist Negah Santos and the guitarist Jim Peterson accompanied the artists by laying down the foundation for tight grooves, giving the main artists plenty of space to add their flare.

Despite the lack of collaboration, this was a memorable performance and it was a privilege to see the two legendary musicians together in the same room. Considering that they rarely, if ever, perform together I believe there is great potential if they decided to play together more often. If they ever do come out with a duet album, I am sure it will be incredible.

-Matt Garamella