Jazz review: Esperanza Spalding at the Orpheum Theater
Even though it's been the better part of a year since Esperanza Spalding shocked a nation of Justin Bieber fans on Grammy night, there was still an impressive level of anticipation in the air going into her show at the Orpheum Theater Friday night, her second L.A. show since winning best new artist.
Because thanks to that win, which still resonates as one of the most satisfyingly daring moments to come out of the Recording Academy in recent memory, there aren't many bigger names in today's mainstream jazz, particularly among artists still in their 20s. Though she's been recording the follow-up to her Grammy-winning "Chamber Music Society," Spalding has remained on the music scene with appearances that included two shows at the Newport Jazz Festival in August, a date with the Roots in Philadelphia and two nights opening for Prince during his late-spring residency at the Forum.
And while curiosity is running high as to where Spalding will go next with the upcoming "Radio Music Society" (produced by A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip, an intriguing pairing that surely raised eyebrows among jazz traditionalists), Spalding offered no previews of what lay ahead in Friday's performance. Kicking off a cross-country tour with her "Chamber Music Society" ensemble, which included a three-piece string section, Spalding primarily drew from the album that delivered her Grammy breakthrough mixed with dashes of theatricality.
Spalding entered at the side of the stage with the curtain still drawn, pausing to slip off her shoes and jacket as she sank into a plush chair for a sip or two of red wine. As the lights dimmed, the curtain rose and string trio swelled to life, pulling Spalding to the front of the band through the sweetly languid "Little Fly." With Spalding plucking out a gently elastic bass line countered by pizzicato violin, it was striking how still the theater had become in her hands as her voice twisted and dipped through the music, as delicate as a falling feather.
An arcing vocal note held atop "Knowledge of Good and Evil" earned cheers, though Spalding's active, ambitious scatting sometimes got lost in the roiling music behind her. A stormy take on "Wild is the Wind" captured her album version's ominous, unsettled atmosphere, and a brief spoken-word introduction to "Short and Sweet" transformed into a twisting vocal improvisation that gave way to a swinging brushed rhythm from drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. Mainstream pop honors or not, this was taut, ever-evolving jazz, and Spalding's audience was ready to follow whereever she led.
"Winter Sun" marked one of the more upbeat moments with a driving, Latin-tinged beat that had Spalding swinging her signature cloud of hair back and forth as she worked up and down the neck of her bass. At the close of the insistent, cyclical pulse of "Really Very Small," Spalding's buoyant vocal improvisations coalesced into words atop Leo Genovese's bright piano lead. "I guess I'm starting to believe it," she sang with a lilting, sunny voice. "It ain't so bad."
After the song closed, she returned to slump into her seat at the side of the stage as the curtain fell behind her. Spalding sat up slowly, as if first waking up while the diverse, multi-generational crowd at the Orpheum came to its feet. It was no dream.
[For the record Oct 3: An earlier version of this post referred to this show as Spalding's first appearance since her win at the Grammys. She performed at USC's Bovard Auditorium on February 26 of this year.]
-- Chris Barton
Photo: Esperanza Spalding performs at the Newport Jazz Festival in August. Credit: Eva Hambach / Getty Images