Esperanza Spalding led her band through great heights during her set at… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
This post has been corrected. Please see note at the bottom for details.
Going into Wednesday night's show at the Hollywood Bowl with Anita Baker and Esperanza Spalding, it was hard not to wonder if a more interesting (and surely bolder) bill could have developed if only the headliner and opener were reversed.
The headliner, Anita Baker, is one of the key artists associated with the "quiet storm" sound, a smooth, down-tempo varietal of late-night R&B that became a radio format with artists such as Sade and the late Luther Vandross in the '80s. That was the decade when Baker was at her peak with her albums "Rapture" and "Giving You the Best That I Got" yielding several Grammy wins and an armload of adult contemporary hits.
Spalding, on the other hand, is only the most famous contemporary jazz artist of her generation. On the heels of her still-striking Grammy win for best new artist in 2011, Spalding has been all but anointed the chosen one by champions of the music with a wealth of high-profile performances, including one scheduled at Disney Hall next year with Wayne Shorter.
But if Spalding has felt any discomfort in the weight of those expectations, she showed no sign of it on her follow-up album "Radio Music Society," a mix of soul, R&B and jazz that could have only been a product of her vision.
And she certainly looked comfortable in the spotlight of a near-full Hollywood Bowl during her opening set. In her fourth appearance at the venue, including two stints at the Playboy Jazz Festival, Spalding was almost jarringly at ease fronting an ensemble that included a seven-piece horn section in a boom box-styled bandstand.
After taking time to introduce her band -- Spalding is nothing if not a democratic leader, almost compulsively back-announcing every musician's solo -- the lean bassist turned to "Hold On Me," a swoony ballad carried by sparkling big band horns that closed with a beautiful, long-held vocal flourish from Spalding that arced into the night.
She showed an easy way with making the Bowl feel intimate while talking with the crowd, at one point playfully discussing the "right kind of man" while introducing the breezy "Crowned and Kissed." But an exchange with backing vocalist Chris Turner before the soulfully buoyant "Black Gold" veered close to the theatrical, despite its welcome nod toward the larger world with Turner's mournful falsetto referencing Trayvon Martin.
But for all her vocal gifts, Spalding was captivating as an instrumentalist, particularly on the Wayne Shorter cover, "Endangered Species." Playing a fretless Fender bass, Spalding anchored the zig-zagging rhythm while carrying a knotty vocal melody, leading the way for a swerving trumpet solo from Igmar Thomas in a percolating instrumental break that could've gone on far longer, and into any number of directions.
The 27-year-old Spalding spoke of keeping jazz on the airwaves in introducing "Radio Song," which felt like an almost quaint sentiment given the format's declining influence among most people her age and younger. But the pointed thought drew a dotted line to Baker, considering parts of "Radio Music Society" wouldn't have sounded that far out of place in the quiet storm era.
Wearing a black dress and a nearly permanent grin, the endearingly personable Baker coursed through a battery of hits including "No One In the World" and "Sweet Love," and even nodding toward funk with a brief cover of Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody." But it was surprising there was no mention of a new album coming on Blue Note in October, her first in eight years.
But maybe she was just having too much fun. With frequent breaks to banter with the audience and special guests, including vocalists Tamia Hill and Lalah Hathaway, the show had the feeling of an elegant Vegas gig, which may be fitting given that Baker's next date is at an Inland Empire casino.
"Singers singing!" Baker gushed after the dusky-voiced Hathaway left the stage, making reference to an earlier comment about what she was all about. Given the Bowl's roaring response for most of her set, there was no doubt what the crowd thought about the night's headliner.
[For the Record, 4:50 p.m., Aug. 23: An earlier version of this post indicated this was Spalding's third appearance at the Bowl. It was her fourth, including a 2010 performance at Herbie Hancock's 70th birthday celebration.]
Who is Esperanza Spalding? Glad you asked
Esperanza Spalding: The Sunday Conversation
Album review: Esperanza Spalding's "Radio Music Society"