|A rare combination of brains, beauty and talent.|
Good music knows no genre boundaries, so an appearance by Esperanza Spalding prompted a trip to Playhouse Square on Sunday night. The preternaturally gifted bass player and singer-songwriter is currently touring with a big band, performing flashy arrangements of songs from her 2012 release Radio Music Society.
Like the CD, the show is pegged to a conceit: Spinning through the radio dial, occasionally a song pops up that can totally transform the mood of the moment or the cast of an entire day. The stage is set for this with a boom box facsimile fronting the bandstand, and tuning and static noises preceding Spalding’s entrance and musical introduction to the group – nine players on keyboards, guitar, drums and six horns, along with two backup vocalists.
With the first song, “Hold on Me,” the focus shifted to affairs of the heart, and the show spun out as a tight package of love songs held together by scripted patter from Spalding, usually in rhyming verse. Only someone with her charm and sex appeal could pull that off, though Spalding seemed to realize she was pushing the limits of the audience’s good graces, saying at one point, “I don’t want to burn you people out on my life stories.”
The music is what made it all work. Rotating between stand-up and electric bass, Spalding took only an occasional solo to show her jazz chops, which are considerable. For most of the night she set a groove with the rhythm section and let the horns carry the melody and solos, in dazzling arrangements that gave the performance a pop gloss, like a slick nightclub or Vegas act. The jazziest element throughout the show was Spalding’s singing, delivered mostly in a smart scat style that called to mind Ella Fitzgerald or even Sheila Jordan.
The performance could turn maudlin at times. After informing the audience that “We don’t just play, we can act, too,” Spalding had a lengthy vocal exchange with singer Chris Turner so nakedly confessional that it was almost operatic, especially with Leo Genovese supplying soap opera chords on the organ. But that eventually righted itself into a glowing version of “Black Gold,” featuring a soaring duet by Spalding and Turner and brilliant colors from the horns.
A perennial activist for social and environmental causes, Spalding paused at one point to plug the organization Earthjustice (“Did you know Mother Earth doesn’t even have a good lawyer?”), which is getting a cut of the CD sales on this tour. She then launched into a sharp, funky version of Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species” that included a nifty trumpet solo by Ben MacDonald and gorgeous three-part harmonies by Spalding, Turner and Leala Cyr.
Cyr and Turner struck up a repeating refrain that carried the closing number, “Radio Song,” through a singalong and tasty drum solo by Lyndon Rochelle. The pop beat and flavor was burnished by some clever work in the horns simulating traffic noise. Spalding ended the evening on a jazz note, returning for an encore with just the drums, guitar and keyboards for a tight version of “I Know You Know” that gave her a chance to stretch her vocals.
While this was not a show for jazz purists (like this critic), it was an impressive performance by an artist who is a gifted player, talented singer and sophisticated bandleader. It’s rare to find that combination, much less a vision of how to package and present music that is intensely personal in both content and form, and make it accessible to a wide audience. More than anything, Esperanza demonstrated that at the tender age of 28, she can do whatever she wants and make it work.
For more on Esperanza Spalding: http://www.esperanzaspalding.com
Photo by WENN