(Royal Festival Hall, 15th November 2012. LJF. Review by Sebastian Scotney)
Americans, in Obama's words, like "to fill in the landscape of our collective dreams." In an society whose icons are established fast, Esperanza Spalding has risen in the American public consciousness to become a fully-fledged and unmistakable cultural icon in her own right.
Spalding, 28, a bassist, singer/composer, who brought her band to the Royal Festival Hall last night, is originally from Portland, Oregon, has an African-American father and a Welsh/Native American/Hispanic mother is somehow the highly marketable embodiment of such dreams. Her surname, incidentally, happens to be identical to another version of such hopes: it's the brand name on the leather baseball glove sitting in a million American garages in wait for the next generation of the family to breed a sports star. But such is the air of authority, leadership, and can-do about her, she carries these these heavy burdens of expectation – and those of her record label - with apparent ease. With a Grammy for Rising Star, and her fourth studio album Radio Music Society having made it into the Billboard Top Ten, such stakes rise progressively higher.
She also carries with her at least some of the hopes of a jazz community praying that its audience can be renewed. To some extent she remains within it: she proudly declares her own personal heroes to be Joe Lovano and Terri Lyne Carrington. But she has been, as one UK critic put it earlier in the year, "donated" to the pop world for this purpose. The question of whether she has been donated, or merely entrusted, is probably out of her hands, and will depend on how many units Heads Up/ Universal manage to ship of her next albums.
But for those of us who care more about the music, there are many aspects of her live show which suggest that the wish to develop, innovate, interact, and to play complex music is very much alive. She leaves space for jazz solos, she meticulously credits her fellow band-members in a very non-ego non-pop way, and jazz moments don't come much purer than an extended but very cohesive trumpet solo on Human Nature by bewitching soloist Ingmar Thomas with Spalding facing away from the audience and trading stuff with drummer (very classy throughout the evening) Lyndon Rochelle. There they were: three Berklee-ites just happily jamming away into the night, partying like it was a decade ago. There were anarchic muso moments too, like a sudden breakneck bass fingerbuster on Julius Fucik's march Entry of the Gladiators.
Then there were the popular, more R & B-ish moments. We had all waited for the hit song Black Gold, but when it did it was the moment which brought biggest surprise to this listener. Around me in the posh seats, the audience were almost all sitting stock still . Only very few people were moving about to the music at all. If you hadn't known what was going on on stage, you' have assumed we were all at a Speech Day or an AGM.
That moment left me with more questions than answers. Can it be that those rows of seats in all their 1950's beigeness make audiences deferent? Or was it that the balance on the vocals didn't help her to communicate with the audience? (The mix on the video above is MUCH more helpful to her.) Or, perhaps, is it that while her personalty and fame and musicality and apparent guilelessness can win over an audience, somehow even the most accessible of her songs don't really connect. She builds up tunes from fragments, she has written, but to my ears there is a problem: the arcs don't really extend. Even with as strong album like Radio Music Society, can it still be the case that as Ben Ratliff has written, songwriting simply “isn’t her primary strength” (that quote is old – Ratliff may have reconsidered?).
As regards the audience reaction, perhaps we Brits just appreciate these things in our quiet way. There was no shortage of applause at the end. But, subjectively, having been in almost the same seat a couple of nights ago for Herbie Hancock (I know, I'm very lucky), the warmth and the connection of the Herbie gig - and the Herbie tunes – see Ivan Hewett's great review - just weren't happening in the same way. Such questions aside, was a happy evening, with a joyous flown-in band venturing in interesting directions, and brought one of the jazz/cultural icons and bright hopes of our time.