Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland 2012: Days 1-5
This was the second stop on bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding's Radio Music Society (Heads Up, 2012) tour, and it played to a sell-out crowd at the 800-seat Tri-C Metro Auditorium. Eschewing the music from her previous releases, Spalding and her 11- piece band stuck to Radio Music's R&B-funk-jazz fusion, performing all the songs from the March release, save the Portland, OR tribute, "City of Roses." While perhaps not fitting some purist idea of a "jazz show," the live performance of these songs did incorporate a lot more jazz-oriented fills than are heard on the record. And the crowd was behind Spalding's latest groove from the beginning.
A large boom box stage prop lit up to start the show. Its dial turned through an array of talk and music radio stationsnone of them too invitingbefore giving way to the live RMS band: a trio of saxophones, a pair of trombones and trumpets, guitar, drums, piano/keyboards and two backup vocalists, that guided the lithe bassist on stage to a funky version of "Us." On the Radio Music songs that followed, Spalding and crew, with the aid of arranger Greg Hopkins, fashioned a satisfying meld of R&B and big band music. Though extended solos were not in order, room was given for individual expression. Jef Lee Johnson turned in a grubby, almost metal guitar solo on "Smile Like That," trumpeter Igmar Thomas blared admirably on several tunes, most notably "Endangered Species," and saxophonist and crowd favorite Tia Fuller traded with Spalding's bass and vocals on the lead-in to "I Can't Help It," the pair dishing about love's twists and turns in the culmination of a narrative Spalding had been spinning through word and song since the show's beginning.
"Black Gold," called at the set's midpoint, garnered an immediate response from the audience, and it fulfilled every expectation, sailing with a relaxed but powerfully exultant groove that captured both the anthemic and personal qualities present in the song's lyric. Spalding followed with an a cappella rendition of "Land of the Free"replete with an added lead-inthat, despite following the big sound of the preceding number, kept all the energy in the room, while dialing in the agony of injustice through a soft, but angst- scratched throat that accentuated the song's harsh angles. This fed naturally into "Vague Suspicions," a cry against the indifference to war (and the conflicts being waged in our name in Afghanistan and beyond, specifically), rendered with full band and sparse then aggressive bass playing from Spalding in the upward charge to the song's finish, where the singer smiled coyly over the opiate punch line: "Next on Channel 4, celebrity gossip."
After this emotionally intense trio of songs, the energynot surprisinglydropped a bit. But it was raised steadily over the next few numbers, resulting in an impassioned playing of "Endangered Species," the 1985 Wayne Shorter tune, now with added lyrics by Spalding that warn of the dangers from human-induced global climate change. A cheery "Radio Song," with orchestrated audience participation, closed the set, before Spalding returned alone with acoustic bass for an encore. Citing inspiration from Dave Holland and Betty Carter, Spalding accompanied herself in singing "Look No Further," a performance that found her in thinner, more rubbery voicereaching toward Carterwhile also exercising her considerable soloing chops, scatting, and weaving beautiful bass-vocal counter melodies. She ended the song by repeating the words of lyricist Ted Koehler: "Let's Fall in Love, Let's Fall in Love, Let's Fall in Love..." A final cooing enticement, perhaps, for any holdouts to come in and embrace jazz, regardless of their chosen entrance.
The R&B theme continued (interrupted by the Friday night "Smooth Jazz All-Stars" show, featuring Gerald Albright, Walter Beasley and Brian Simpson, among others) when Aretha Franklin took the stage at the State Theatre. The introduction by Lauren Onkey, VP of Education and Public Programming at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fameone that touted Franklin primarily for her Rock Hall inductionagain gave some cause for concern that this festival might be slipping away from a dedicated celebration of jazz. But the grand, 3,200-seat venue had only a few open spots when the lights went down. And judging by the (automatically) enthusiastic response Franklin garnered from the audience throughout the two-hour show, few there seemed concerned about the event's jazz merit.
Waltzing on stage more than a half-hour late, Franklin was nonetheless in a spirited mood, pumping her right arm to the roof on the opener "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher" and pointing down to audience members on "Share Your Love With Me." From there the evening played out in a mix of booty-shaking R&B and slow-burning soul numbers, including "Chain of Fools," "Day Dreaming" and "I Adore You." Though Franklin's voice thinned a bit over the course of the evening, she held back nothing, leaping repeatedly into the higher registers to the delight of a house full of listeners ever eager to soar right along with her. She twice made a conscious effort to include recognized jazz tunes, taking on "Skylark," complete with stretched vowels, dips and rolls, and James Moody's "Moody's Mood for Love," which found the Queen of Soul stuffing gobs of words into the broad, easy strokes emanating from the horn sectiona butting-of-heads effort that never quite worked.
After nine songs, Franklin sat down behind the piano and proceeded to demonstrate that, at 70, she's still no slouch working the ivories. She accompanied her vocal flights with intricate rolling melodies and took a solo on the "Still Water Runs Deep/Bridge Over Troubled Water" medley. This pairing, with much soul swooning and choral pumping from the backup singers, proved the highlight of the setan inventive reworking of the Paul Simon classic in the spiritual idiom that has lost none of its verve over the years. But its disintegration into extended gospel wailings, with several in the crowd gladly waving along with testifying arms, signaled the beginning of a long goodbye that would severely test limits of endurance two songs later on "Freeway of Love." Here Franklin's choreographed exit from the stage stretched endlessly to repetitive R&B tones. (The extension did, however, give Cleveland saxophonist John Klayman the opportunity to wail searing solo lines over the thumping din.) Franklin came back for the inevitable "Respect," then left with a final hearty wave from the wings, a towel already draped over her shoulders as if she'd just gone 15 rounds in the ring.