As the light dimmed after the obligatory introductions by the Rochester International Jazz Fest sponsors, Esperanza Spalding’s backing band, The Radio Music Society Band, walked on stage at the Eastman Theatre’s majestic Kodak Hall. The band, really more of a miniature jazz orchestra — three saxophonists, two trombonists, two trumpeters, plus a guitarist, a pianist and a drummer — began to tune their instruments.
The horn section took their places behind a giant radio stage prop, which became the focus of the show’s opening. The band’s tuning was followed by a different tuning — the static-filled sound of someone turning the knob between stations on a radio. When the static died, the band began to play. After a quick burst of music, the radio was tuned again, and the band switched styles. They made it through five or six different “stations,” before the invisible listener found one suitable.
That’s when Spalding walked out on stage, wielding her electric bass, and began to sing. She and the band played through her song “Hold On Me,” which morphed into Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It.” The cover was one of the very, very few to ever do one of his songs justice.
Spalding and most of the band were young and showed a fervent energy, but despite their age, they brought the confidence and talent of an experienced jazz ensemble. Spalding was confident at center stage, but frequently stepped back while others played. The horn section covered everything from funky soul to modal jazz, ripping through solos like Coltrane or Maceo Parker.
In between songs, Spalding offered asides — or perhaps, more accurately, soliloquies — to set up the next song. But her words and poems weren’t the typical stage banter. When she did break from character, she explained that pessimistic intros to her sadder songs weren’t a real reflection of her. “I just like telling stories,” she said.
She mostly focused on the jazzy soul of Radio Music Society, but Spalding also picked up the upright bass for more traditional jazz. While most jazz bassists choose one or the other, she excels at both — blazing through funk grooves and taking the lead on smoky jazz numbers.
Spalding and the RMS Band also covered Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species.” Their improv on the Weather Report saxophonist’s jazz fusion was a highlight of the show. They finished the evening with a sing-a-long version of “Radio Song,” repeating the chorus over and over. Outside the Eastman Theatre, long after the show had ended, people were still singing, “Yes, this song’s the one.”