Artists of Esperanza Spalding's fame and stature don't typically play small music rooms, but no one is going to call Spalding typical.
So if her sold-out, three-night run at City Winery Chicago seems likely to frustrate fans trying to get in, it certainly intrigued a rapt audience during her opening on Monday evening. Opportunities to see Spalding leading a jazz band in intimate surroundings were rare even before she the won the Grammy Award for best new artist last year (causing despair for Justin Bieber devotees everywhere). Ever since, Spalding has been a crowd magnet in large concert halls and outdoor pavilions, as her show last June at the Ravinia Festival attested.
But Spalding – a musician of protean gifts – never has produced a great deal of sound as vocalist. The breathy, ethereal quality of her singing was mostly lost in the wide-open spaces of Ravinia, the audience there unfortunately missing out on the charm and gentle lyricism of her work.
Even at City Winery, a room that seats just 300, Spalding's fragile vocals often were overrun by her brassy band, an ensemble that's really too large and formidable for her soprano to withstand. Yet the originality of Spalding's tunes, the intelligences of her lyrics and the bracing quality of her orchestral arrangements proved so compelling that one simply endured the obscured vocal phrases. Or, to put it another way, Spalding brought so much musicality and depth of feeling to this performance that one tried to look past the flaws. Music as urgent and unusual as this merits some indulgence.
As expected, Spalding focused on work from her recording "Radio Music Society," the genre-breaking follow-up to her similarly pioneering "Chamber Music Society." If the latter elegantly fused jazz and classical sensibilities, the former leaned toward pop idioms, albeit with the harmonic sophistication and melodic complexity that always have been Spalding signatures. "Radio Music Society" represents Spalding's attempt to craft jazz-flavored songs that might thrive on the airwaves.
Even so, Spalding's music bristled with strange twists and turns of melody, lyrics that defied conventional patterns and phrases that meandered far longer than today's Top-40 attention span allows. And that's part of the beauty of this work: It reflects the idiosyncrasies of Spalding's muse far more than it does the prevailing tastes of the pop marketplace.
Some years ago, Spalding saw a TV news report about a man freed from prison after serving decades for a crime he didn't commit. The story stuck with her and inspired "Land of the Free," a chilling call for justice with a sanctified, church-music accompaniment. To hear Spalding practically crying out the song's lines, organ-like chords swelling behind her, was to behold the rare singer-songwriter who can tell a true, tragic tale without sounding self-righteous. The stripped-down instrumental backdrop added to the impact of the performance, Spalding's thin, gauzy voice plain to hear and all the more powerful for its vulnerability.
Many of the compositions on "Radio Music Society" show comparable social consciousness, though all of it worn lightly and without pretense. In "Black Gold," Spalding delivered a message of uplift, encouraging young men in a racially polarized society to take pride in who they are and the noble ancestry that produced them. In "Vague Suspicions," she pondered the dark toll of war and the obliviousness of the society that pursues it.
There were love songs, too, notably "Cinnamon Tree," with its haunting, familial resemblance to "Apple Blossom" from "Chamber Music Society," both revealing the tenderness beneath the tough exterior of Spalding's protest fare. When Spalding chanted this willowy music, the brass and reeds softly playing long lines and lean chords behind her, she reminded everyone that ballads need be neither sappy nor simplistic to disarm the listener.
Between songs, Spalding offered her trademark, I'm-talkin'-to-you soliloquies, addressing the audience as if it were her lover at one moment, her girlfriend the next, her adversary after that. We've heard these monologues many times by now, yet Spalding delivered them with such whimsy and seeming spontaneity that they haven't grown old. At least not yet.
Not surprisingly, Spalding's show reached its climax with "Radio Song," a piece that captures the sensation you feel when you're driving in your car, turn on the radio and hit upon a new tune that you instantly love and need to hear again and again and again.
No doubt many in Spalding's audience haven't had that feeling for a long time. They sure did Monday night.
Esperanza Spalding plays at 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday at City Winery Chicago, 1200 W. Randolph St.; $55-$100; sold out, but wait list available online; citywinery.com or 312-733-9463.
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.
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