"Are we in for a treat? I think we are!" said an eagerly awaiting man behind me just before Portland native Esperanza Spalding took the stage at the Crystal Ballroom last night. The excitement shuffled into the room with the spectators as they found their places in the tightly packed, sold-out house.
When the lights dimmed, a full band adorned in classy black garb opened the set with a loaded solo-tossing number, showcasing the undeniable talent backing Spalding. The horn section alone sounded like it could blow right through you. Within the first few minutes the saxophone, drums, trumpet, guitar, trombone, keys and backup vocalists were taking turns passing lines around to one another, making the music feel like a lively conversation between the instruments of seasoned musicians. Dressed in a sleek black dress, Spalding coolly made her way to the center of the stage with a smile on her face and a bass guitar in her hands. And just as the crowd had hoped, she added a heap of buttery scats to the mix.
The highly acclaimed bassist, singer and composer—who made the jazz world proud when she won a Best New Artist Grammy last year—commanded the attention of a diverse audience with an earnest charm and an obvious musical knack that poured out of every move she made. She comfortably laughed and told stories throughout the night, but never broke focus from the steady stream of solidly rehearsed pieces. Performing a handful of songs off her recent album Radio Music Society, Spalding demonstrated why people of all kinds love her: Not only is she a well-trained jazz musician—she also infuses elements of neo-soul and R&B into her music, which packages her prodigious bass skills and warm voice into a universally enjoyable sound.
Spalding ended the night with an encore performance of "City of Roses," a tribute to this fine city she once called home. It turned out the man in the crowd behind me was right. After two hours of moving back and forth between the twists, turns and honks of the full band and the mesmerizing intimacy of Spalding alone with her bass—we were in for a treat, indeed.
PHOTOS BY MIKE GRIPPI