By Tad Dickens | 777-6474
The typical jazz show can be a phenomenal thing, even if it’s a group of cats simply delivering wild goods. With Esperanza Spalding, though, an audience doesn’t get a typical jazz show. Spalding likes a theme.
On Tuesday night, the singer/bassist/composer took Jefferson Center’s Shaftman Hall stage for the third time, supporting her latest record, “Radio Music Society.”
As she had in March 2011 at Jefferson with that disc’s sister album, “Chamber Music Society,” Spalding showed a flair for the theatrical. But she never let it distract too much from nearly two hours of challenging but gorgeous music. She led her group through extended and improvisationally deep versions of songs from the new album.
More than 900 had filled a sold-out Jefferson Center in that 2011 concert, which fell shortly after Spalding took the Grammy award for best new artist. Maybe curiosity drew that full house.
A smaller crowd of about 790 showed for this one, and Spalding challenged any perceptions they might have had about the songs on “Radio Music Society.” She gave her band room to move freely, and her voice often made the audience gasp.
It started with an instrumental — the sound of a radio dial rolling through static as the house lights dropped, showing only a giant picture of a boom box’s glowing radio dial. Found stations and found songs, courtesy of her 12-piece band, punctuated the static. Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady,” Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” were among them. The latter got a laugh from the crowd.
Then the band broke into its own funky large band arrangement, accompanied tightly by a bassist no one could see. That was Spalding, who emerged playing an electric bass and telling the crowd that everyone in the band was going to show what “Radio Music Society” was all about. From there, practically everyone got eight bars to burn before the song was through.
As the years have gone by, the 27-year-old’s upright bass has grown to the point that it’s truly a second voice. On the bluesy torch song “Hold On Me,” her vocal rolled up high and airy, right into a flurry of a double-bass solo.
She let her seven horn players deliver harmony after lush harmony, from the pastoral folk jazz of “Cinnamon Tree” to the ancient royal shouts of “Crowned & Kissed.” Saxophonist Tia Fuller, who led her own band at Jefferson Center in 2010, took hot choruses on the Stevie Wonder-like “I Can’t Help It,” with Spalding and guitarist Jeff Lee Johnson weaving a polyrhythmic web of chords behind her.
Spalding conjured sadness and sympathy with the mournful gospel of “Land of the Free.” She elicited a big singalong and handclaps on the bouncy-funk of the set closer, “Radio Song.” And in the encore, it was just Spalding and her upright. She walked her bass through some humid midtempo jazz as she sang Betty Carter’s “Look No Further,” sounding like she could have done the entire show on her own.
Notes on stuff that wouldn’t fit into 15 inches of copy
Spalding is more than a musician. She cares about bigger issues. She dedicated her song, “Land Of The Free,” to Cornelius Dupree Jr. who served 30 years of a life sentence on an incorrect murder. DNA evidence and the Innocence Project freed Dupree. Spalding said that merchandise table sales of “Radio Music Society” last night would go to the Innocence Project.
Friends from the Amazon Aid Foundation were in the house, too, and Spalding said she would be joining them in the atrium after the show for the public meet-and-greet. She said that T-shirt sale profits would go to that organization. She talked about the foundation’s attempts to get people to “adopt an acre” of the Amazon Rain Forest, for preservation of what she called “out lungs.” Then she led the band through a devastating version of Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species,” one of the album’s few covers.