Esperanza Spalding at London Jazz Festival, Royal Festival Hall | Live Review

The London Jazz Festival is known for bringing together the best in new talent and legends of the genre to perform in various venues across the capital over a packed nine-day period. This year was no exception, with the likes of Sonny Rollins and Herbie Hancock joined by one of Jazz’s newest and brightest star’s – Esperanza Spalding. The impressive, grandiose yet intimate setting of the Royal Festival Hall played host to her immense talents as she returned to London for another stop on her Radio Music Society tour on November 15th.

In keeping with the theme of her album title, the show begins with the sounds of a radio dial being switched between stations, catching snatches of songs from a variety of genres including Wham! among many others – a good intro that provokes giggles throughout the venue. The 12-piece band then take to the stage and as the horn section strike up – Spalding, looking stunning in a emerald green dress, takes her place behind the mic with her trusty electric bass to hand. Sounding assured and confident, her sweet yet light and airy vocal tones are strong enough not to be over-powered by her impeccable, watertight band.

Her pre-song narratives are also more captivating and engaging with the audience than they were at the Koko gig earlier this year. The charming charisma blends perfectly with her abundant music talent, as witnessed by her ability to seamlessly switch between electric and upright bass throughout the performance. Not even a speculative “Marry Me!” request from an enamored member of the audience is enough to shake her focus as she emphatically replies “no” in mid scat and without missing a bass note.

The whole Radio Music Society album was performed and re-interpreted in its entirety with extended jams giving the songs refreshing new angles. The obligatory solos are all excellently executed and also end just in the right place – before they venture into chin stroking self-indulgent territory. During “Radio Song,” Spalding even manages to draw a sing along from the passive, reserved audience – an achievement in itself.

After exiting the stage to a rousing round of applause, Spalding returns for a double bass jam accompanied by her flawless drummer. All band members gradually retake their places and this ushers in the evening’s sublime finale, “Cinnamon Tree.” Spalding definitely has saved the best till last as the heavenly melodies of the studio version translate perfectly into the live setting thanks to the combined effort of Spalding and on-point backing singers.

It’s difficult to find faults in the night’s performance; Spalding was definitely in her element. Although purists may decry the lack of traditional acoustic numbers that populated her earlier albums, this foray into fusion territory is winning her admirers across the board and is also helping to introduce jazz to a new audience that may have previously dismissed jazz as pretentious and old school. Esperanza’s uplifting sincerity prevalent in her songs and character will ensure her star will continue to ascend for years to come.

Photo credit: José Farinha