The easiest criticism to make of bassist Esperanza Spalding, in previous years, was that her live shows didn't have any overarching theme or direction. She'd mix a typical jazz repertoire — standards, rearranged pop songs, ballads with revised lyrics — with scattered pieces of Brazilian music, or songs that more closely resembled contemporary R&B. Audience members occasionally accused her of solipsism, or at the very least, of being more concerned with her own creative muse than with putting on a great show.
But Spalding took a much more considered approach performing last Saturday night for what looked like a near-packed house at Oakland's Paramount Theatre, where she ushered in SFJAZZ festival's fall season. Based largely on her current album, Radio Music Society, Spalding's set featured such new compositions as "Black Gold," "Smile Like That," and "Cinnamon Tree," along with her groove-driven version of the Stevie Wonder tune "I Can't Help It." Alternating between stand-up and electric bass, Spalding held court with an eleven piece band and two background singers, one of whom hailed from the Bay Area. Spalding is only 27 years old and she rose to stardom pretty early, garnering a prestigious teaching position at Berklee College of Music when she was just 20. Her early foibles on the bandstand could easily be chalked up to youth and insouciance.
Now the bassist has what many of her peers in the jazz world lack: a fully defined concept. Radio Music Society is based on the somewhat quixotic idea of "bringing intelligent music to the radio," a cause that could really use a media-friendly celebrity like Esperanza Spalding as its public face. With that in mind, the music she played was hooky and accessible, anchored by Latin rhythms and incredibly tasteful drumming from Lyndon Rochelle. She veered from the theme a couple times, delivering an impassioned speech about the prison system as a prelude to "Land of the Free," her ode to recently-exonerated Texas prisoner Cornelius Dupree. (Laced with Hammond B3 organ, it's a laconic, but cogent gospel ballad, and one of the strongest tunes on Radio Music Society.) Spalding still retained all her old performance qualities, flitting about the stage in chunky high heels, and gamely flirting with the two audience members who shouted "I love you" between songs. But overall, her show was much more solid than in years past — even if it stuck to a script.