“Believe the myth,” Esperanza Spalding told an audience of more than 1,300 on Tuesday night at Helzberg Hall. “I do.”
She was referring to the portrayal of royalty in fairy tales, but Spalding may as well have been alluding to her unlikely ascent to stardom. Her first headlining appearance in Kansas City since claiming the title of best new artist at the 2011 Grammy Awards was sensational. Backed by a youthful 11-piece band, Spalding displayed impeccable musicianship and stagecraft in a mesmerizing two-hour performance.
“Hold On Me,” another of the 10 selections from the recent album “Radio Music Society” performed Tuesday, revealed two additional aspects of Spalding’s enormous appeal. The first portion of the piece was squarely in the torch song tradition. Sultry swing gradually gave way to free-form improvisation. The seamless transition between these old and new approaches exhibited Spalding’s unique vision.
“Land of the Free,” the quietest song of the evening, was also its most powerful. Accompanied only by an organ as the song began, Spalding sang about a man who was wrongly imprisoned. It was one of several pleas she would make for tolerance, social justice and environmental causes. An engaging conversation between Spalding and vocalist Chris Turner served as an imaginative introduction to “Black Gold.” Turner suggested the song made him “feel empowered and hopeful.” It is a good bet that the uplifting piece had the same effect on much of the audience.
Not all of Spalding’s original material is as strong as “Black Gold.” Songwriting may be her sole weakness. An exquisite rendition of Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away” as an encore served as a reminder of the sort of great songcraft that Spalding has yet to master. It is not the only obstacle Spalding faces if she is to achieve even greater renown.
“They don’t let people like us on the radio these days,” Spalding said.
The formidable talent Spalding demonstrated Tuesday will almost certainly allow her to clear such hurdles. She is, after all, music royalty.