Esperanza Spalding fills the Michigan Theater with exceptional jazz
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Jazz virtuoso Esperanza Spalding brought a big band and a big sound to the Michigan Theater on Saturday. Between her superhuman vocal control and impressive bass playing—both electric and upright—Spalding's performance was mesmerizing.
Her 11-piece band, the Radio Music Society, was just as responsible for captivating Ann Arbor's crowd. The layers of sound created by the large horn section, drums, keyboard, guitar, and Spalding on bass diverged, converged, and went on wonderful tangents. At times it made your brain tingle. In all, the songstress and her band put on an energetic, technically sophisticated show.
The Grammy-winning composer, vocalist, and bassist has a talent for music that parallels jazz masters much older than the 28-year-old. Already studying music at the college level by her mid-teens (she left high school with a GED when she was only 15), by age 20 she was the youngest faculty member at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Her years of practice are paying off. At the Michigan Theater show—sponsored by the University Musical Society—complex jazz instrumentals paired with her ability to control her voice over a large range impressed the crowd, who gave her a standing ovation. Complex music flowed out of her so naturally, itt seemed effortless.
Lately her eclectic jazz, which also teases in some R & B, soul, and funk elements, has captivated the world. She is frequently heralded as bringing jazz to the mainstream, especially after winning the 2011 Grammy for Best New Artist after her 3rd release, "Chamber Music Society."
With the Radio Music Society, Spalding is on tour to promote her 2012 album by that name. "Radio Music Society" won her more Grammy gold this February. She took home Best Jazz Album, and her song "City of Roses" took home Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s) with her mentor Thara Memory.
"Chamber Music Society" and "Radio Music Society" are work together. Her explanation on her website describes her musical personality well: "Originally I conceived the two albums as a double record, with intimate, subtle explorations of chamber works on one and jazz musicians exploring melodies, grooves and songs associated with what we categorize as 'pop songs.' Those are the two ways of looking at music that really interest me."
Although influences other than jazz shine through in her performance, Saturday's show was above all a great contemporary jazz concert. It is refreshing that she has gained mainstream appeal without going too 'pop.' She is accessible without having to sacrifice compositional complexity and experimentation.
Fans of "Radio Music Society" heard some hits from the album. In her live performance of hits such as "Crowned & Kissed" and "Radio Song," Spalding and her band really took the opportunity to play around with them, adding new layers to the recorded versions.
A powerful moment was her duet with vocalist Chris Turner, which included her popular song "Black Gold." Their despair over the murder of teenager Trayvon Martin was expressed in a touching way. It was a great example of how much emotion comes through Spalding and her band as they perform.
An encore featuring only Spalding and drummer Lyndon Rochelle was a unique moment in the show. Stripped of the rest of the band, her upright bass talents - fingers flying - really shone.
"The whole performance was nothing short of remarkable," audience member Lynn L said after the concert. "I'm a huge jazz fan. For her to be so young and so talented, she can rival any of the jazz masters."
Charlie Sharp and Vicki Graham of Lansing saw Spalding perform at the Michigan Theater once before. She played as a member of Joe Lovano's UsFive Quintet at another UMS show in 2008. "When we saw her play the first time, I was blown away by her skill then. So we knew we had to come see Esperanza," Sharp said after the Michigan Theater show.
Of this time around, Graham says Spalding "blew me away." "It was over the top. When the band started playing, my ears just went back!" she laughed.
"Technically it was superb, but beyond that she rocks! She had this great emotional sense. It was all of the above - a wonderful performance on all levels, I thought," Sharp concluded.