I found out after the fact that the Tinariwen concert a few weeks ago was the second Grammy Award winner I’d seen in October. I recently learned that they won the World Music award this year for their album Tassili.
But earlier that month, I was fortunate to have caught Esperanza Spalding in Pittsburgh at the Byham theater. She won Best New Artist in 2011 for Chamber Music Society (her third studio effort). She was the first jazz musician to do so—and with competition like Justin Bieber no less. It’s good to see some grown-folks’ music getting its due.
Her recent follow up album, Radio Music Society, is more radio-friendly. It has a higher R&B quotient—a heavier dose of funk. The lyrics deal more plainly in matters of the heart. But the album’s forthright political edge gives it balance and proportion. Spalding’s versatility is reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield or Nina Simone. Her first single from the album, “Black Gold,” is a celebration of black pride very much in the tradition of Mayfield’s “We’re a Winner” or Simone’s “Young, Gifted, and Black.”
Spalding’s back-to-back albums, each named for different Societies, are aesthetic counterparts. As the names suggest, Chamber Music is acoustic and string heavy, while Radio Music is horn-driven and oriented by the back beat. On the latter, Spalding plays a fretless Fender jazz bass in addition to the upright. Her funky ostinato lines have deep pockets.
The later album takes this conceptual impulse a step further. When Radio Music was released last March, the digital version was accompanied by an hour-long music video that linked the songs into a loose narrative. The plot adds new twists and an additional political significance. Especially on “I Can’t Help It” and “Hold on Me,” the love stories’ progressive gender politics treats varied sexual orientations as a fact of life and love—both requited and un-.
Her performance at the Byham drew on this conceptual and political vocabulary. The bandstand was covered in the image of a black boombox, the radio dial clearly illuminated. When the band began, they played fits and starts of songs in different genres punctuated by static, mimicking the frequency spectrum.
When she took the stage, she welcomed the audience and immediately asked, “But what does it mean: Radio Music Society?” The band then passed around solos, stipulating some terms. Spalding began to tie the songs together with her introductions, drawing on similar narrative techniques as the film.
Getting into “Land of the Free,” she told the story of Cornelius Dupree, Jr., who was proved innocent after having spent 30 years in jail. One prisoner, Spalding reminded us, among 2.3 million. The proceeds from the merchandise sales that night went to the Innocence Project, the organization that aided Dupree’s defense.
All night, the arrangements were fresh and the improvisations were dramatic, even transcendent. Spalding is a true band leader and a gifted composer; as a bassist, there’s not as many role models for that. Mingus comes to mind; and like him, Spalding bears the influence of Ellington.
Even while holding down the low end, her vocal performance is astounding. She’s at least a triple threat. These are the first three tunes of the evening, including the introduction.
I had hoped—maybe just a little—to hear a tune from her earlier album, Esperanza. I must have listened to her cover of the Milton Nascimento tune “Ponta de Areia” a few dozen times in recent weeks. That song became known to American audiences by way of the Wayne Shorter album Native Dancer, but Spalding owns it for herself.
Nonetheless, this was one of the finest performances I have seen: thoughtful and well-rehearsed, but never contrived. The musicianship was of the highest caliber, and it was delivered with equal doses of humor and sincerity.