05/02/12

Concert Review: Esperanza Spalding, Orpheum Theatre, Boston, April 22

A triumphant homecoming for the Grammy winner and rising star

Esperanza Spalding had much to celebrate when she headlined Boston’s Orpheum Theatre on April 22. Most obviously, the show was an early stop on her tour promoting her pop-chart-climbing new album, Radio Music Society. But it also took place on Earth Day, a fact she acknowledged by offering a free download of her sand animation video version of her cover of Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species” via her website (the film premiered earlier that day on three Jumbotron screens on the National Mall). It was also a homecoming of sorts, Spalding having begun her rise to prominence while a student (and, briefly, a teacher) at the Berklee College of Music.

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Esperanza Spalding - Photo by Ben Johnson
By Karen Brundage-Johnson, PhD.
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Esperanza Spalding, International Jazz Day, NYC, 4-12
By Jeff Tamarkin

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It was also worth celebrating a jazz musician having been booked at a venue of Orpheum’s size (2700 capacity), and nearly filling the space with a diverse crowd of jazz buffs and pop fans. Four-year-old Brooklynn Masso sat watching raptly from her daddy’s lap while a couple of rows in front of her was Fred Taylor, longtime local jazz impresario, who gave Spalding’s career early support by booking her at his current club, Scullers, and at the Tanglewood Jazz Festival. Not far from Taylor sat saxophone hero George Garzone, whose path no doubt crossed Spalding’s at Berklee, and there were likely others on hand who had never seen live jazz before, let alone played it.

The show opened with the focus on an oversized boombox, its dial spinning from station to station, from one familiar radio staple to the next, eventually leading to Spalding’s 11-piece backing band of top young pros getting quick little workouts—including a snippet of scat singing by trumpeter/vocalist Leala Cyr—on an introductory instrumental. Spalding soon strolled out to join them onstage, resplendent in a tight green dress with some sort of white flower affixed to it (both in honor of Earth Day, as she noted later in the set), playing her electric bass and singing wordless vocals.

From there Spalding went on to perform nearly all of the songs from her new album, generally pausing between them to deliver short spoken introductions—the most interesting of them being to “Black Gold,” a racial pride song she was inspired to write, she said, because she recalled encouragement she’d gotten while participating in arts programs as a young black girl, and “I worried there weren’t programs like that for the boys.” (Backing vocalist Chris Turner was more prominent on “Black Gold” than elsewhere.) Visual effects were limited to the bandstand boombox and the prison bars projected behind the stage for her protest song “Land of the Free,” which called attention to the three-decades-long wrongful imprisonment of Cornelius Dupree Jr., and ended with the sound of a cell door bolting shut.

But the emphasis was very much on the music. Spalding switched back and forth from upright to electric bass throughout the set, with longtime associate Leo Genovese carrying much of the musical load, comping and soloing on piano, Rhodes electric piano and electronic keyboards. About half of the seven “Radio Music Society Horns,” like Genovese and drummer Lyndon Rochelle, date back with Spalding to her Berklee days, and all of them helped her ramp up the jazz feel to the music in concert—tight horn sections such as this one aren’t seen much in pop concerts these days, after all. Spalding’s voice, too, seemed weightier than it does on her album.

Beyond their ensemble work, the horns were granted just enough solo time to impress the audience without distracting it from Spalding and her lyrics. Guitarist Jef Lee Johnson, trumpeter Igmar Thomas, and alto saxophonist and musical director Tia Fuller all got short, quick turns on “Smile Like That,” and trombonist Corey King and tenor saxophonist Aaron Burnett did likewise on “Hold on Me.” But mostly the tunes featured one prominent instrumental solo apiece. Trombonist (and Berklee professor) Jeff Galindo blew a crowd-pleaser that meshed brilliantly with Spalding’s singing on “Crowned & Kissed.” Spalding took one herself on upright on “Vague Suspicions.” Fuller was showcased on “Cinnamon Tree,” with Thomas yelling encouragement from behind her as her fiery extended solo built toward its climax. Then Thomas followed with an even more dazzling solo of his own on “Endangered Species.” Dan Blake’s tenor sax solo on the set closer, “Radio Song,” was short, but smart and impassioned. “Radio Song” also saw Rochelle’s lone drum solo of the evening, and an only moderately successful attempt by Spalding to turn it into a sing-along—the melody was a little too complex, or the audience a little too self-conscious, for that to have worked fully as intended.

The audience may have held back its singing, but it didn’t hold back its applause. A standing ovation brought Spalding back onstage for an encore. She said that normally the band would have joined her for “City of Roses,” her tribute to her hometown of Portland, Ore. But she said that she’d spent “so many years living here in Boston,” that she figured she’d sing something about New England instead, and closed out the evening with a lovely a cappella version of a song celebrating the region (whose title, alas, she didn’t announce).

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