By Jeff Dayton-Johnson | KUSP – One of the most eagerly awaited shows of this year’s festival was Esperanza Spalding’s. She took to the arena stage – and the KUSP airwaves – shortly before 3. She led a big, solid band through complicated material with aplomb and charisma (not thrown off by the blistering interruption of fighter jets flying over head). At least two band members – guitarist Jef Lee Johnson and saxophonist Tia Fuller – are established leaders in their own right.
Spalding’s latest record is called Radio Music Society, and the arena stage was dominated by a outsized boombox radio during her set; the band’s initial horn salvo was even fed through some kind of filter that sounded like a little transistor radio, only to blast forth subsequently in full glory. She explained to the audience the importance of each of the three words in the title.
What she would like, it seems, is that jazz could reclaim its place as the premier pop music and the premier dance music, as well as being the intellectually challenging and culturally relevant art form that it is today. Arguably, at the peak of the 1930s and 1940s big-band era was all of these things: all over the radio, providing the beat to young people’s dancing, and adored by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir all at the same time..
Spalding recognizes that to effect this change, the sound of jazz will need to change, too, and the music she and her band played demonstrated the direction it will need to go. “Black Gold” made a strong argument: the horns and the swing, but also the sweet soul and the funk. (In this regard, her project is like that of pianist Robert Glasper – last year’s MJF Artist-in-Residence, and whose latest record title – Black Radio – sounds a little like Esperanza’s, even if Glasper’s music goes in yet another direction.) Spalding closed with a rousing defense of the crucial importance of good music on the radio; needless to say, we could not more strenuously agree with her position.
Here’s hoping Spalding can bring this vision to fruition; in the meantime, you can already hear plenty of good music on the radio at KUSP 88.9 FM…