Live: Esperanza Spalding Cuts Through The Static At Florence Gould Hall


Esperanza Spalding
Florence Gould Hall (at the Alliance Francaise)
Monday, April 16

Better than: What you usually do on a Monday night.

Within minutes of hitting the stage for last night’s invite-only tour peek, Esperanza Spalding’s orchestra put its bigness into context. Most of its twelve pieces were heard before they could be seen; the lights in the hall were down save for the glow emitted from the dial of the supersized boom-box doubling as the horn section’s bleachers. In keeping with the message of her just-released disc Radio Music Society, the band simulated the sound of searching for a station: blaring guitar, static… Latino horns, more static… smooth vocal patter… R&B… foreign-languages… bebop, static. Given that the image is in the likeness of a ghetto-blaster, it was perhaps surprising that no honest-to-goodness breakbeat was tuned in, but no matter. Altoist Tia Fuller’s solo immediately announced an alternate kind of boogie down, and by the time the lights at center stage spotted Spalding—serenely elegant in a simple black evening dress with electric bass at the ready—the point about the orchestra’s versatility was made.

The evening was billed as a “dress rehearsal” for Spalding’s upcoming tour. Though it was probably a bit more canned than what audiences will end up experiencing, Spalding continuously proved to be an effortless singer and musician. Much like Norah Jones, she started her career at a crossroads that was probably more of the industry’s making than her own, but even now, with her career in rapid ascendence after last year’s Bieber-besting Grammy and a recent appearance on the Academy Awards, Spalding still struggles more with the “is-she-or-isn’t-she jazz?” tag than Jones did. It’s probably a virtue of slinging the perennially jazz-identified acoustic bass fiddle, which she switched to at varying intervals last night starting with the new album piece “Smile Like That”. In the song Spalding is questioning a love interest whose eye seems to be straying, an apt metaphor for the way the acoustic bass almost breaks away from the song’s pop-ish rhythms.

With the exception of the big band-inspired charts of the Spalding original “Hold On Me,” the rest of the pieces fell into a different relaxed permutation of jazz-funk. At one point Spalding identified drummer Lyndon Rochelle as the “center” of the band; certainly the case, though her arrangements are mined with off-kilter accents that fellow rhythm-sectioneers Jef Lee Johnson (guitar) and Leonardo Genovese (piano; keys) take remarkable advantage of. It’s why a piece like “Radio Song” flips so easily from groove to vocalese. As engaging as her hooks tend to be, however, it’s easy to get the impression that Spalding’s a singer in search of a lyricist; her verse tends to overdo the purple. It’s the difference between being able to hum along with the chorus of her single “Black Gold” and being able to sing along to the cover of Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It.” In an evening with many musical highlights (like altoist Tia Fuller performing a breathtaking deconstruction of Jackson’s changes), that turned out to be the only lyrical one.

Critical bias: Industry showcases aren’t the optimum atmospheres for cutting loose.

Overheard: “We got back from Angola yesterday. Yup, I went straight down to the Vanguard.”

Set list:
Crossed and Kissed
Smile Like That
Hold On Me
Black Gold
Land Of The Free
Cinnamon Tree
Endangered Species
I Can’t Help It
Radio Song

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