There was a time when the Apollo Theater was the only destination for Black star power in New York City. Almost every important recording artist of color cut their teeth at the hallowed music hall. In the lobby of the theater you pass by the famous collages of those legendary faces that had graced Harlem’s sacred stage: Nina Simone, Solomon Burke, The Four Tops, Harry Belafonte, and so many others. Pride aside, you can’t help but notice that you don’t see any faces of legends who broke out after 1970; No Michael Jackson, no Lionel Richie, no New Edition, no Whitney Houston, no Herbie Hancock. Surely these people deserve to be mentioned with the likes of Aretha Franklin and James Brown, do they not? Why no extra space has been made for them remains to be discovered, but one thing’s for certain: The Apollo is more of a historical relic rather than a go-to gathering place for new music; unfortunate considering the bounty of young, progressive musicians of color ready to make their own marks.
Esperanza Spalding’s accomplished quite a bit in her career so far. Aside from taking the jazz world by storm with her swooning vocals and deft, funky bass playing, the prodigy from Portland was the youngest music professor at Berkelee Music School at age 20, she performed for President Obama, been championed by legends Stevie Wonder and Prince, and won the Grammy for Best New Artist while going against wildly popular acts like Justin Bieber and Drake. Her latest album, Radio Music Society, debuted in the top 10 of the Billboard 200 in March and has since sold 100,000 copies – staggeringly high for jazz. As wonderful as those accomplishments are (especially in light that she just turned 28), she never played the Apollo…until now.
Radio Music Society is Spalding’s companion LP to 2010’s Chamber Music Society, in which she explored a lush, expressive hybrid of contemporary jazz and classical chamber music. The two dates at the Apollo were the last in an American run, before beginning a leg in Europe. As her showcase for Chamber Music Society was, a singular set piece that included music only from that album, the Radio Music show was geared with the same premise. Gone was the elaborate string orchestra, and in its place was a 12 piece band with a seven player horn section. Spalding recruited some of the best brass players out there, including trombonist Corey King, saxophonist/flautist Tia Fuller and trumpeter Igmar Thomas. As the lights went down, you heard the familiar static of a radio dial, followed by the band playing short spurts of eclectic hits, from “Foxey Lady” to “Thriller,” to “Careless Whisper” and “Desafinado.” Soon, the band kicked into its funky overture as Spalding emerged from backstage already playing her electric Fender bass.
Wearing a killer form-fitting white dress, Spalding half-strutted half-danced her way on stage. She switched to her acoustic double bass before leading the band into “Let Her.” Spalding let her show follow a loose narrative, starting with love-lorned material of “Smile Like That” and her fantastic cover of Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It.” The live musicianship was as crisp as the record, fulfilling Spalding’s fusion of R&B sensibilities with jazz execution, the same winning ideal that birthed all those great Motown pop hits, thanks to the chops of the Funk Brothers. Spalding’s got her reputation for her bass play, which she was playing at a zenith rate. However, her voice has been spreading her impending legend, and never did sound more vibrant and dynamic than at the Apollo. She employed a piercing falsetto with her lavish vocal improvisations, yet also maintained control and rhythm throughout.
Chris Turner, the keening vocalist best known for his work with EMIRAJ, signaled a change in chapter, ad-libing his heartfelt concerns for Black progress, specifically his unhappiness about Trayvon Martin’s killing. Spalding mirrored Turner’s concern’s with “Black Gold,” the album’s first single and anthem for Black inner strength. “Black Gold” is just the sort of song that would’ve been a popular radio anthem in the 1970’s; Spalding’s soulful contribution to a songbook that includes anthems like “Young, Gifted and Black,” and “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now.” Moving to a more somber note, Spalding told and sang the story of “Land of the Free,” which she wrote about a man who spent decades in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Ending the block of socio-political was “Vague Suspicions,” which reminds us all to be careful about blindly following institutions.
The evening fittingly ended on a polarizing note. Spalding and the band kicked into “Radio Song,” the band’s theme song as she stated. A tune about the special moment when you hear a new song on the radio and it shovels itself into your soul forever, the band shined at its brightest. All evening, each member got their chance to show what they were made of – Thomas injected Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s “T.R.O.Y.” riff during an earlier solo – and “Radio Song” was the best example of Spalding’s keen sense of balancing chemistry and individuality. Once leaving the stage, Spalding swiftly returned to treat the sold-out crowd of fans to one last song; a solo performance of Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away,” proving she didn’t need a band to show there’s a lot of soul in jazz.
Quiet ambition has always been Spalding’s Modest Operandi, both on record and on stage. Be it combining grandiose chamber strings to contemporary jazz or writing the lyrics to every single song on your album for the first time, Esperanza knows where’s she’s going and what she’s doing. The Radio Music Society album and show is her thesis on how long cherished traditions have faded while long suffered atrocities have only escalated. Her presence at the Apollo is perhaps the next step in a long journey to restore the virtues of our heroes while embracing the innovations of a new generation, and its significance cannot be overstated. Long ago, it was an unwritten rule that you haven’t made it until you’ve played and conquered the Apollo. Veni, vidi, vici.
I Can’t Help It
Smile Like That
Crowned & Kissed
Land of the Free
Throw It Away (Encore)
Words by Matthew Allen (@headphoneaddict)