Reviews & Opinions

Review: Roaring With Delight Over Esperanza Spaulding
Gary Finney's Buffalo Road Trip Brings Home Esperanza


Setting the Stage

Esperanza Spaulding, courtesy of Carol YoungdahlThe house lights go down and you hear faint rustling on the darkened stage. Two tightly focused spotlights illuminate the façade of a 10ft x 4ft boom box, which is upon the stage. Suddenly the faceplate of the radio dial lights up and the auditorium’s speakers emit static from a radio not properly tuned in. An unseen hand begins to scan the dial from bottom to top and each time a radio station briefly comes in, it’s the veiled band upon the stage performing the snippet of music. After nearly a dozen stops at stations that are not playing what the invisible owner of the boom box wishes to hear, the “right” style of music is finally found and the stage is flooded in light as the eleven piece band jumps into a seriously infectious groove. And so we are introduced to Esperanza Spaulding’s Radio Music Society.

But wait, where is Esperanza? You can hear a bass playing, though she is obviously offstage. In an act of pure unselfishness, the band is allowed to play for nearly five minutes, with each member of the band, seven horns and a three-piece rhythm section, getting a turn to solo. And then she confidently strode onto the stage wearing a gossamer dress with her electric bass throbbing to the percolating funk and her trademark afro reaching for the stratosphere. Yeah, the tune “Us” definitely set the tone and the nearly full house knew that this was going to be a FUN night of music.

Driving the Low Road

Esperanza Spaulding, courtesy of Carol YoungdahlThroughout the set, Spaulding’s delivery was relaxed and confident, whether playing and singing or with the introductory banter to nearly every song. It seemed important to her to impart some background for her compositions so that you knew where her head was at when she wrote it. Even if she had not, the music more than spoke for itself. On a bass and drums duet, she and drummer Lyndon Rochelle were as tight as Siamese twins. Their pairing eventually morphed into the bluesy ballad “Hold On Me” which featured some soulful horn voicing.

And it was her horn arrangements that were the consistent star of the evening. While much has been made of Spaulding’s playing and singing abilities, her time at Berklee is also evidenced in the harmonically rich arrangements for the four brass instruments and three saxes. The musical director for the band was altoist Tia Fuller (you remember her, right? JazzErie brought her to the Ambassador in December of 2010). Whether on up-tempo tunes with a strong funk influence or on a mellower piece, the horns were outstanding. Just think of a cross between the original SNL band, circa 1975 and Stevie Wonder’s 1974 Wonderlove Band.

The Alluring Voice

The horn section played succinctly on “Black Gold” which betrayed faint gospel influences near the end, and just simply lusciously on “Vague Suspicions” while guitarist Jeff Lee Johnson got to tear it up on “Smile Like That”. Repeatedly throughout the night, Spaulding’s high voice rose above her little big band as clearly and alluringly as any siren’s call to Ulysses. It was a marvel to watch as her fingers darted as fast as a lizard up and down the bass’ fret board, she sang with her effervescent exuberance and her left foot stomped out the time with eight notes, all simultaneously. 

Esperanza Spaulding, courtesy of Carol Youngdahl“Cinnamon Tree” was all delicate pulsations and counterpoint harmonies, while “I Can’t Help It” featured a tart, blistering Cannonball-esque solo from Tia Fuller that seemed to inspire the whole band. The same could be said of trumpeter Igmar Thomas’ abandon during his solo during “Endangered Species.” This was the first gig of the tour and after seventy-five minutes, Spaulding appeared tired. She thanked the crowd profusely, the band left the stage and the house lights came up. The audience’s hands moved most appreciatively, but to a person, their feet stayed put. When the houselights come on at the UB Center Of Performing Arts, the night is over, but not this night. The crowd would have none of it until there was an encore.

And so the band trouped back onto the stage and the audience roared with delight. We were treated to “City Of Roses” which she wrote for her hometown of Portland, Oregon.  Whether it was fatigue or simply the love she feels for her home, her emotive voice sounded profoundly sincere. At its conclusion, band and crowd alike were satisfied with the evening’s results. Live jazz; there’s nothing like it.

Editor's Note: Thanks to Carol Youngdahl for use of the photos.

By Gary Finney
April 21, 2012