An impatient far from docile crowd anticipated Esperanza Spalding and her band’s appearance at Koko in Camden last night with a bit of feverish clapping as the excitement mounted for her Radio Music Society show. Sensuous, conceptually distinctive, a conversation in quasi-poetic, narrative style meshing into envelope-like arrangements with often socially conscious lyrics folded inside them duly unfurled when the bassist/singer came on a short 10 minutes after the scheduled start time.
Dressed in a plum dress with a latticed back and her bass guitar strapped on sturdily the music began with a bit of old fashioned radio static and waveband tunings and the squall of Spalding’s horn-heavy band’s tuning-up morphing into a bit of informal free jazz.
With the sax section dominant early on particularly Tia Fuller, best known for her work in Beyonce’s band, often sharp and piercing but no less kick-ass on alto, Spalding whose serenity and vocal dexterity vied with her fast flowing ideas on both bass guitar and double bass cajoled the audience into her rapidly unfolding tales of innocent, ever complicating love.
For an artist who has successfully interpreted William Blake in the past this was her own very different 21st century transformative extension. Most of the narrative revolves around the ups and down of falling in and out of love, moving in the course of her narration to the audience to both a very romantic duet with backing singer Chris Turner and the affirmative universal consciousness of ‘Black Gold’, the standout track along with ‘Radio Song’ from her Heads Up album Radio Music Society released back in March.
The set really came alive from ‘Smile Like That’ onwards and while slightly incongruous in a full-on sold out medium sized rock venue such as here had enough momentum to let people dance along in the alcoves, beers in their hands, mobile phones in the air snapping pictures left, right, and centre.
The band has a Mingusian feel at times, but can also dig deep into sprawling Stevie Wonder-like R&B (Innervisions period linking ahead in time to 'I Can't Help It' penned by Stevie and Susaye Greene Brown for Michael Jackson's Off the Wall) – a fairly unique amalgam. Bluesy guitarist Jef Lee Johnson had a good tearaway break after a few early set ensemble longueurs that then signposted better directions ahead from the responsive band, and while Leo Genovese was hampered by indifferent keyboards sound, at least from where I was standing, it didn’t really matter so much as the arrangements gravitate more to the horns and the trombones rode with the action and got captured well, spurring on Spalding. It’s remarkable hearing the Portland-born musician at this stage in her career, and only a few years since she was playing Ronnie Scott’s with Joe Lovano’s very different but no less sparkling Us5. Times have certainly changed.
Koko was a test for this band and Spalding's growing fame and her appearance on Later last week probably helped generate some of the frenzy. For now Spalding has so much more to say and yet she is saying so much already. It’s a jazzy soul/pop thing for sure. If you think of it as a way of breaking down barriers and bringing a bit of joy to people who aren't too bothered about what genre their music is, you’d be right.
– Stephen Graham
Esperanza Spalding (above) at Koko last night. Photo: Roger Thomas