Esperanza Spalding brought her act and her 12-piece band into Naples Wednesday night, trailing clouds of expectation and industry buzz not seen since maybe the Beatles? She has generated a storm of hype and accolades in a storybook career that has seen her become a Berklee School of Music instructor at age 20 after dropping out of high school, the only jazz artist ever to win the “Best New Artist” Grammy. She has won fans from Pat Metheny to Jon Stewart to Barack Obama, who invited her to Oslo to perform when he won the Nobel Peace Prize, as well as at the White House.
In the eye of this storm stands Spalding, a slender young woman not yet 29 years old, seeming bemused by all the attention and just wanting to make music. And on the stage at the Phil, make music she did, showcasing her considerable talents as singer, bassist and songwriter, not to mention bandleader, arranger and communicator. The communication came in a running conversation Spalding held with the audience, “rapping” in the sense of just talking, although her words would often start to rhyme, signaling the onset of another song.
With all the influences and genres she incorporates into her performances, the music was pretty much straight-ahead jazz, taking advantage of a very talented seven-piece horn section who sat behind a 10-foot mock-up of a black and white boombox. The concert is part of Spalding’s “Radio Music Society” tour, following her 2012 album of the same name. Esperanza emphasized the “society” aspect, taking time to introduce each band member at the beginning and end of the 1¾-hour set, and inviting applause for their solos.
“Radio Music Society” has been touted as Spalding’s approach to mainstream pop music, with more accessible beats and melodies. “Radio Song,” which opens the CD, but was played as the final number at the Phil — there was no encore — explicitly summons up the experience of hearing a catchy tune and “singing along, even if you get it wrong.” Spalding invited the audience to, and they did, although they were better at clapping in time, guided by musical director and sax player Tia Fuller onstage.
In truth, Esperanza Spalding hasn’t given much ground to commercialism, with a jazz sensibility firmly in control, and layer on layer of instrumentation through most of the music.
She began the evening playing offstage through a cordless pickup, then walked on to join the band in mid-number. She showed off her remarkable chops on the bass, both the standup acoustic double bass and a Fender electric bass guitar, switching back and forth almost every number.
With casual virtuosity, she played intricate solos far up the neck, sometimes playing well above the notes of the electric guitar accompaniment, and often while singing the demanding vocal parts of her own songs. Spalding’s voice is not the rich, killer instrument of a chanteuse, but she has tremendous range and impeccable phrasing, bringing Joni Mitchell to mind.
The songs were those of the “Radio Music Society” album, or rather extended, jam versions of those songs. Spalding has solo writing credit on 10 of the album’s 12 cuts, along with covers of Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It” and Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species.” Spalding took advantage of “Endangered Species” to wish Mother Earth a happy birthday on the upcoming Earth Day, and plug EarthJustice, which is receiving a portion of the proceeds from tour merchandise.
She got a little political on “Vague Suspicions,” noting the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, which the audience decided to applaud after mulling it over for a moment, and mentioning “the headline I just read, drone strike leaves 13 civilians dead.” Keeping with the radio theme, she segued to “celebrity gossip — Paris Hilton caught again, Tiger Wood is back, are those the Kardashians’ real boobs? Now what were we just talking about? It seemed important.”
It could be difficult to hear Spalding’s vocals when the band got cranked up and started wailing. Some of the most effective numbers used a restrained tone palette, with muted horn accompaniment, or just a dialogue between Spalding and her guitarist, or keyboard player Leo Genovese. Spalding the bass player also bears some responsibility, sometimes playing 17 notes when three would do. One standout number was “Cinnamon Tree,” with a simple, hypnotic and melodic line.
Spalding’s hair has gotten as much buzz as her music. Her Afro, which could make Erykah Badu feel under-tressed, was restrained at the Phil under a long patterned scarf. Spalding wore a demure slate gray dress just above the knee, which could have been worn to a cocktail party by a preacher’s wife, although the reverend’s lady might not have paired it with knee-high tan cowboy boots. The band wore black.
The crowd at the Phil, which didn’t quite sell out, was probably considerably older than Spalding’s typical audience, although there was a smattering of younger folks giving off a hipster vibe. They got to see and hear the hottest thing in jazz, an artist determined to make it on her own terms, who is bringing the world to her point of view.
Lancer Shearer is a freelance writer for the Daily News, when he’s not being a guitarist and music lover.