Last year singer and player of multiple instruments Esperanza Spalding won the Grammy for Best New Artist, becoming the first ever jazz musician to receive the honour and beating Justin Bieber to the prize. That year she brought her album Chamber Music Society to the London Jazz Festival, and this time around she presented its companion piece Radio Music Society. She performed it to a sell-out audience at Camden’s Koko last May, and now in the far larger Royal Festival Hall there wasn’t a spare ticket to be found.
As an album, Radio Music Society is a (highly successful) attempt to fuse jazz, R&B, pop and soul, but it also represents so much more. It captures Spalding’s own philosophies on life, which include the idea that the one thing that really unites us all is the radio. The concert consequently began in darkness, as all of Spalding’s supporting artists created the effect of a radio constantly being retuned, with bursts of The Eagles‘ Hotel California and a foreign language programme filling the air.
When Spalding took to the stage in a slim, silky green dress, complete with map of the Thames around its hem, she instantly oozed charisma. With her hair gripped back on one side, but flowing freely elsewhere, her presentation was natural enough to make it feel as she was having an informal conversation with the audience, yet sufficiently stylised to keep the atmosphere highly charged. That throughout the evening she accompanied her spoken dialogue with just a few simple notes on the guitar or double bass, handed every utterance a strong sense of poignancy and theatre. The voice itself will surely leave a lasting impression. It remained pleasing and focused when cruising in third gear, but could hit wondrous heights in the upper register, the visceral sound piercing the soul while remaining musically highly interesting. The songs addressed issues that we can all relate to, but hearing them sung by this major star made our own mundane problems sound poetic, and lifted our insignificant lives to the realms of the aristocratic. For example, in Crowned and Kissed she described any girl’s man as a king, meaning that we all have the power to live royal lives if we learn that love and respect for one’s partner is everything.
The evening also included covers of classics such as Stevie Wonder‘s I Can’t Help It, with Spalding stamping her own unique take on the world onto every word that she sang.Backing vocalist Chris Turner gave an exceptional performance as he lamented being stereotyped and doubting his self-worth, which prompted Spalding to sing the single Black Gold to “help free his spirit”. From among the eleven-strong supporting group, the solo performances of trumpeter Igmar Thomas, pianist Leo Genovese, guitarist Jef Lee and drummer Lyndon Rochelle stood out in particular.
The main set ended with Spalding and everyone on stage leading the audience in singing the words from Radio Song, “Now if yu want to, sing it loud, with love, with love in your heart. Because you like to, because you need to”. This was not, however, the end of the evening as the encoresrepresented a substantial section in their own right. While jamming solely with Rochelle, Spalding answered a heckle of “Will you marry me?” by singing “no” on a single note for her next line, and this moment encapsulated her performance style as a whole. She can be spontaneous and play to the audience, but while her talent is exceptional, the warmth she exudes means that she never comes across as conceited.