Let's cut to the chase. If you ever have the chance to see Esperanza Spalding in concert, consider it a bargain at twice the price.
Friday night the bassist/singer/composer who grew up in Portland, OR, brought her 11-piece Radio Music Society (named after her most recent CD and including a seven-piece horn section) to the Byham Theater and simply killed it. I had been warned ahead of time that she puts on a show, and she certainly does.
It's like no music I've ever heard before, though the construction recalled early-1970s fusion, the closest thing to it being Jaco Pastorius' Word of Mouth Big Band with tastes of Chicago and Bob Mintzer's big band along with Ms. Spaulding's delicate lead vocals sprinkled in. "Endangered Species," with a long trumpet solo from Igmar Thomas, typified the proceedings. And that doesn't even take into account her technique on the acoustic bass, which was straight-up dangerous.
The show opened up with a simulated listener flipping from radio station to station, followed by the crack band performing a funk groove that allowed every horn to solo. I didn't get the title; I didn't receive a set list and Ms. Spalding didn't announce any of the songs.
Ms. Spalding found time for some social commentary: a stretched-out "Land of the Free," a tribute to a man who was freed from prison thanks to the Innocence Project. It opened with gospel-style organ courtesy of Leo Genovese; and the encouraging, African-influenced "Black Gold" that followed a despairing vocal from Chris Turner.
Probably the highlight of the evening was the cover of Stevie Wonder's "I Can't Help It." Tenor saxophonist Renato Caranto nearly stole the show, demonstrating an incredible range. It was slightly eclipsed, though, by the the encore, which had Ms. Spalding alone on stage singing a Betty Carter song, eventually scatting while playing a walking bass line.
Amazing. Simply amazing.