Esperanza Spalding, Royal Festival Hall, Thursday 15th November
Radio Songs. Snatches of music, riffs, melodies heard out of context that catch the ear and make you listen without knowledge of where they belong in genre or style terms. That’s the ambition of this music finally spelt out by Esperanza Spalding in an extended story telling entree to Radio Song, the final tune of the nearly two hour show. And ‘show’ is the only word for this glorious, enthralling, give yourself up to it, diverse, brilliantly stage managed and orchestrated… show. And the encore? Well with just the bass, Esperanza and the rustling swing feel of brushes on a snare drum we were reminded of the simple truth at the heart of all those complex, layered, time switching unfailingly grooving tunes we’d heard; a compelling, creative and dazzling musical intelligence as the scat like vocal wound its improvised sounding lyric around the bass line, gave space to a blistering be-bop like solo (no wonder Joe Lovano hired her for his US Five contemporary bop band) and perfect comic timing as she waited just long enough to sing ‘No’ to a roared proposal of marriage from one over heated punter in the balcony.
Spalding is of course of a star in the firmament (as she sings herself at one point), picking up a Grammy for best newcomer in 2011 and earning the ire of Justin Bieber fans to the extent they maliciously edited her Wikipedia page (according to her Wikipedia page!) so there are plenty of accounts and analyses of her music. To my ears this set, drawn from the Radio Music Society album, is rooted broadly in funk and soul but always shifting and twisting in unexpected ways with a rich, bang up to date jazzy harmony. I came to this gig, the first time I’ve seen one of her bands, having listened to the album and expecting to hear those complex arrangements live and see a great show. I fancy like a few folks, I got something more and a bit different from expectation. The material from the album was the repertoire, but they were all introduced with extended half sung half spoken monologues and exchanges with the band; plenty of scope for improvising and the arrangements of tunes had space cleared in them for some extended work outs by different members of the band. ‘Hold on Me’, a melody that always sounds to me like its hook is going to be soul torch ballad but veers off modulating and delaying the resolution, got stripped back to an underlying 12/8 feel with solo spots for half the band; another driving funk tune turned into a modal work-out for the alto; there were moments when for all the world that trumpet solo could have been Miles Davies in his elctro-funk period; Wayne Shorter’s Endangered Species sounded like the fusion classic it is as well as an impossibly, unlikely catchy vocal riff. There were some real live moments too. At one point the heat and lights seemed to given the bass a life of its own as it refused to stay in tune on a more ballad number (probably just the heat of lights rather than emotion)
At the heart of it all, on a very comfy looking rug in the centre stage in every sense of the phrase, Esperanza Spalding orchestrated and drove it all. What a show.