Carolina Theatre, Durham
May 9, 2012
Esperanza Spalding makes an audience genuinely happy. Her music and the spirit of it are infused with a 20-something-year-old’s truth serum, which shows up in the form of between-song monologues about young love in the present day, and tender reconnection with pre-colonial ancestry. “Espey,” as her band mates affectionately call her, is the type of chick every mother wants to bear her grandkids and every bass enthusiast wants to be serenaded by.
At a packed Carolina Theatre peppered with Durham’s multi-aged, -raced, and -gendered jazz and fusion aficionados, the lights opened on a bandstand complete with an over-sized boombox. The controls flashed and cackled as the eight-piece ensemble mimicked the static that is often the most appealing resonance on popular radio. They then launched into a Maceo-esque instrumental before Spalding emerged from the shadows of backstage, a sunburst-colored Fender Jazz bass horizontally strapped across her slight frame. It looked to weigh only a few pick-ups less than she.
The assembly, with Spalding front and center, delved straightaway into “Hold On Me,” a big-band number from Radio Music Society, Spalding’s post-Grammy follow-up to Chamber Music Society. It came splattered by horn blares and expressly punctuated by saxophonist Tia Fuller (most recognized from her stint with Beyonce’s all-female I AM … Sasha Fierce and Beyoncé Experience world tours). Jesse Johnson, original guitarist for Minneapolis funksters The Time, sat on a stool to Spalding's left, as the horn section—whose median age had to be less than 30—stood poised and ready to her right.
Spalding then began shaping the narrative of the evening’s performance with short soliloquies designed to take the listener “on a journey.” Although the effort was as cliché as the phrase it evokes, Spalding came across as prematurely wise, undulating through phases of adolescent adoration, growing up.
Predictably, the highlights of the evening were Spalding’s most familiar tunes: “City of Roses,” a homage to her misty native city of Portland, Ore., and “Black Gold,” an uplifting black conscious clap-along written with the struggles of African-American youth in mind. Toward the more somber closing, the lights fell to spotlight Spalding as she invoked the story of Cornelius Dupree, a prisoner exonerated after 30 years behind bars. Spalding, atop gospel-tinged organ runs, performed the solemn “Land of the Free,” positing age-old questions about imperialism and oppression in the form of a story about a man freed only after, “it cost him his parents, and his wife, his home, his life.”
In full-circle fashion, Spalding concluded with her own version of the Wayne Shorter number, “Endangered Species.” Penned by Spalding over the Shorter instrumental, the lyrics could easily be considered a sophisticated Earth Day jingle with its punchy harmonies (think Birdland) and Mother Earth-affirming flair.
It’s easy to understand why certain critics and audiences alike hail Spalding as a refreshing addition to jazz, a genre seemingly always in need of a pulse check. She’s also in the business of proving her uniquely conservative synthesis of sounds attractive to an audience of her peers. Boasting a resume that already includes sessions with Prince, Stevie Wonder and M. Ward, she plucks the strings of her upright and electric basses with Berklee-trained nimbleness, while orchestrating an evening of pure contentment. In a radio music society, that may be just enough.