(Originally written for relix.com1)
Take any of the well-documented roads of jazz history back beyond Miles Davis, through Harlem, past New Orleans and the blues and you’ll end up with West Africa’s griot. Griots were traveling storytellers who sowed the stories of their people and time and educated others on their history, thereby preserving it. But they were entertainers too; skilled analysts of the stories they told, not to mention adept musicians.
Last Tuesday evening at the Boulder Theatre, Esperanza Spalding sported each of these hats—storyteller, commentator and, of course, musician—with flair and ease. After a cheeky intro from her 10-piece Radio Music Society band wherein they provided song snippets for their bandstand-cum-boom box as it tuned from station to station (including that infernal saxophone line from “Careless Whispers”), Spalding sauntered onstage—afro pulled back in a voluptuous pompadour—and took up her electric bass guitar for the first time.
As the full ensemble eased into their first number of the night, “Hold On Me,” Spalding introduced the players, each of whom would prove equally up to keeping pace with their bandleader as the night progressed. But perhaps no one appreciated their talents so much as Spalding herself, who was more likely to dish a solo than claim it, rendering the few she did take especially salient. During “Rest Where You Are,” her first encore, she let loose what was maybe only her third solo of the night, blistering up and down the neck of her double bass, stirring the gentleman behind me into a streak of incredulous, whispered profanity.
The clear musical prowess on display would’ve been evident to anyone who might’ve ducked under the Boulder Theatre’s awning to dodge the rain on Tuesday evening. What wouldn’t have been—and what elevated the concert from a simple musical performance to something of an experience—were the thoughtful narratives Spalding weaved throughout her setlist. From her playful exaltations of love (“I see you smiling,” she winked to the audience before “I Know You Know”) and exoneration of ex-lovers to songs of injustice and race (“Was Travon Martin’s life so dispensable?” trumpeter/vocalist Chris Turner sang out during a melancholic interlude), Spalding provided the gallery with the melodious choruses typical of radio pop along with substantial grist for the mill. Hearing her, it’s tempting to call just her songs newly enlivened bits of an old genre. But seeing is believing, and the reality is, at 27 years old, she herself is—as storyteller, commentator and musician—a shot in the arm to not only jazz, but the music industry as a whole.