I recently caught 9 indoor concerts and multiple shows on outdoor stages at the 33rd annual Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, aka the Montreal Jazz Festival.
Several top-shelf bassists, including young jazz star du jour Esperanza Spalding, led bands at the sprawling fest, held over 10 days at umpteen venues in downtown Montreal. The festival attracted an estimated attendance of two million people.
It was a promising match: Esperanza Spalding, the photogenic young jazz superstar du jour, holding forth at the spacious nightclub/concert hall Metropolis. The cavernous venue, on rue Sainte-Catherine in the heart of Montreal’s downtown nightlife district, is one of the most popular of the Montreal Jazz Festival’s 14 indoor venues.
There was great anticipation for the performance by Spalding, who brought a full band to the fest for the first time, following appearances there with a string trio and as a jazz soloist. The bassist, singer and songwriter is touring in support of this year’s eclectic, ambitious Radio Music Society album, a sort-of sequel to 2010’s Grammy-winning Chamber Music Society.
Spalding and her little big band — a three-piece rhythm section and seven horn players — turned in an inspired performance shot through with a heavy dose of between-songs spoken word material. The latter was part and parcel of the overarching concept attached to the music on the new CD. The chatty stuff, much of which was also delivered too softly to engage the crowd’s attention, unfortunately slowed the concert’s momentum and skewed the pacing.
That said, Spalding’s appealing vocals and accomplished playing, on upright bass as well as a Jaco Signature Fender Jazz Bass, were in full force. The hype on Spalding has been overwhelming, and she largely lived up to it, although those seeking a heavier, more satisfying dose of her bass playing and soloing might find greater satisfaction catching her in the context of saxophonist Joe Lovano’s Us Five group.
“We’re sending out the wish that soulful, intelligent music remains on the radio,” Spalding said at the start of the show, after the band mimicked the sounds of a trip across a radio’s dial, complete with static and random snatches of “Careless Whisper,” stray funk and hip-hop grooves, and a Jobim tune. “That’s our mission statement.”
It’s hard to disagree with that: Wouldn’t it be great if pop-minded music as sophisticated, interestingly textured and nuanced as Spalding’s compositions had a home on the terrestrial airwaves?
Throughout the show, Spalding made inventive use of her band, here offering wordless vocals in unison with horn lines, and there scatting in a tete-a-tete with Tia Fuller’s soaring alto saxophone. The singer often made unexpected leaps with her voice, and her melodies frequently zigged when they might have been expected to zag. She sometimes brought to mind other vocalists whose singing also was simultaneously influenced by pop and jazz traditions — everyone from Joni Mitchell to Gayle Moran.
But she’s mostly Esperanza, handily weaving the above genres and funk, Latin and R&B flavors into her songs. That highly individualistic approach was evident on several of the show’s highlights: “Crowned and Kissed” opened with a processional-style horn figure, while “Black Gold” benefited from a catchy melody, gorgeous background vocals and the soulful singing of Chris Turner, and the light and breezy “Cinnamon Tree” was bolstered by Jef Lee Johnson’s bluesy guitar solo.
The sunshiny “Radio Song” benefited from Leo Genovese’s two-fisted piano solo. Then it was time for the encore, one of the show’s most inspired moments: Spalding, alone on stage, played upright and sang on “Precious,” underscoring the sing-song melody with her creatively supportive upright playing. It made for an intimate moment, one worth waiting for — a hugely talented young musician, alone with her bass and her voice, directly communing with a rapt audience. More of that, please.