Esperanza Spalding was celebrating Earth Day in her concert Monday at the Warner Theatre, sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society, giving some shout-outs to the mother planet by the splendid show’s end.
There was already quite a bit of earthiness in her approach — a solid mastery of bass, whether on stand-up acoustic or electric. Nimble, never showy and not stopping for solos, she knew the instrument’s job was to keep the bottom on the expansive tunes even as she added a certain gleefulness to her variations. With a career built on instrumental prowess, Spalding’s longevity will likely rely on her equally playful, ethereal and elastic voice, which often gives way to scat phrasing.
The Portland, Ore., native, just 28, came to widespread fame two years ago at the Grammys when she became the first jazz figure to win best new artist — infuriating fans of her fellow nominees Drake, Mumford & Sons and especially Justin Bieber.
Since then Spalding has only added to her Grammy shelf even as she’s developed an engaging performing style that’s reached a high point with her current Radio Music Society Tour.
With the intimacy of a small ensemble that can burst with the punch of a big band, she presents her material, taken mostly from her latest release of the same name, “Radio Music Society,” together as if they were different movements in one long manifesto on the nature of love, stitching them together with brief spoken musings over musical interludes.
It’s an emotion that brings giddy highs and perilous vulnerabilities, bitter rejection and hope anew in songs that shifted from “Hold on Me” to her version of Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It,” a highlight from Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” that provided a perfect compromise between her smooth R&B and jazz stylings that gave the show an early high point.
The theme extended with “Smile Like That” and the regal “Crowned and Kissed.” “I had been chasing Prince Charming, when what I wanted was a king,” she said by way of introduction. The mood changed as backup singer Chris Turner brought up the Trayvon Martin case and wondered, “will I ever get past being someone’s idea of a stereotype?” to which she answered with the encouraging “Black Gold.”
Spalding’s connection with her talented band doesn’t mean a round of solos for every tune. Rather, each song is built to spotlight one or two musicians, standouts of whom included Hailey Niswanger on alto sax and Corey King on trombone. Keyboardist Leo Genovese and drummer Lyndon Rochelle were fine throughout.
Spalding’s live shows are much more immediate and less canned-sounding than her more precise and sometimes mannered recordings. There is a freshness and verve to her approach that seems well-suited for the start of spring. Hearing it, you can almost see the flowers grow.
Catlin is a freelance writer.