When Esperanza Spalding appeared on Austin City Limits in 2009, she frankly blew us away. A great singer, composer, bandleader and bassist, the Portland native-turned-Austin resident wasn’t a household name, but she made a huge impression on everyone who saw her on our stage. So we were pleased to have her back, with a Best New Artist Grammy on her shelf and a new twist on her distinct vision of jazz and soul.
In a direct nod to her latest record Radio Music Society, a giant jambox adorned our stage; when it started to glow, the band began to play, jumping genres amid radio static to emulate someone switching stations looking for the perfect song (a theme she’d come back to later). Then a deejay announced “Us,” a funky pop tune in which Spalding explained “the philosophy of the Radio Music Society” and introduced her 11-piece band. Stage appropriately set, she and her musicians danced skillfully across a line where jazz, R&B and pop hook up. She veered from the romantic pop/soul of “Crowned and Kissed” and the overt R&B empowerment of “Black Gold” to the jazz balladry of “Hold On Me” and the bebop fusion of Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species” (now given environmentally-conscious lyrics).
But Spalding and the band did more than simply play different but related styles. They mixed it all together, adding scat singing to the lovelorn soul of “I Can’t Help It,” slathering the R&B ballad “Cinnamon Tree” with busy jazz guitar (provided by Jef Lee Johnson, a cult figure for guitar nerds) and spicing the singalong soul pop of “Radio Song” with a free jazz piano solo. “Radio Song,” in fact, climaxed the set, rolling the entire “philosophy” of the Radio Music Society into one number, with explanatory dialogue, a catchy chorus and a call-and-response vocal line that made the audience part of the performance. Spalding left the stage still playing and leading the crowd in song.
She encored with a nod to her jazz roots, essaying a sweet take on Betty Carter’s “Look No Further” accompanied only by her drummer. It was a perfect way to cap the big music of the main set and a reminder of her mantra from her first ACL appearance: jazz ain’t nothin’ but soul. You’ll hear for yourself when Esperanza Spalding’s episode airs in February. Don’t miss it!