Most artists who win a Grammy respond by giving the people what they want: the very thing that earned them a Grammy in the first place.
Esperanza Spalding is not most artists.
Wednesday, in the UB Center for the Arts, the winner of the 2011 "Best New Artist" Grammy didn't play a single song from "Chamber Music Society," the record that earned her that award. Instead, she offered up inspired takes on every song from her latest effort, "Radio City Music Society."
The message? Spalding has moved on. In fact, a betting man would be wise to lay all his money on the table backing the wager that Spalding is not likely to ever stop moving on.
In a dazzling display of musicianship that melded jazz, R&B, funk, soul, pop and classical, Spalding led her Radio Music Society Band on a thrillingly idiosyncratic tour through her own imagination.
Unlike her last appearance in Buffalo -- in December 2010 at Buffalo State's Rockwell Hall Performing Arts Center, backing the "Chamber Music Society" album -- Spalding this time concentrated almost exclusively on fretless electric bass. Her acoustic upright took center stage during only a handful of songs. This meant there would be a more vibrant groove throughout the evening, in keeping with the '70s soul, funk and pop that the "Radio Music Society" album celebrates.
After opening with a sultry "Us," Spalding led her band directly into the new material with "Crowned and Kissed." Immediately, the depth of her compositional acumen became apparent. The song commences with dense harmony, as the horn section played a motif redolent of the orchestrations with which the late, great Gil Evans adorned Miles Davis' work. Then the song morphed elegantly into a deep funk groove over jazz chords.
"Smile Like That" was prefaced by one of Spalding's several spoken introductions, this one suggesting that there are smiles, and then there are smiles -- facial expressions that coyly hint at nothing but trouble. The song commenced with a scat motif, moved easily into a Latin groove, erupted into a swinging horn section movement, led into the first of guitarist Jef Lee Johnson's many searing jazz-based guitar solos and concluded with a "shout chorus"-style coda centered on dialogue between the guitar and Daniel Blake's sax.
The centerpiece of the set was certainly the pairing of the a cappella "Land of the Free" and the epic "Vague Suspicions," the latter featuring Spalding's finest bass playing in an evening filled with low-end virtuosity. Echoing the influence of Charles Mingus and Eddie Gomez, Spalding proved herself to be an eloquent, provocative and inventive improviser -- no surprise to anyone who's caught her in the act previously.
If the Land/Vague section offered the finest example of Spalding's instrumental brilliance, then "Endangered Species" made it clear why she chose these particular musicians to perform with. This was all funk, gritty and greasy and grooving as can be. Trumpeter Igmar Thomas was the featured soloist here, and he killed it.
Drummer Lyndon Rochelle deserves serious props for his playing throughout Wednesday's show. Whether gently propelling an implied swing via brushed snare drum, or laying down soulful R&B grooves, Rochelle never failed to steer the proceedings toward the decidedly funky.
Spalding is an incredibly gifted composer, musician and singer, and Wednesday's show celebrated this fact, while simultaneously making it clear that creative wanderlust will be a consistent factor in what will surely be a brilliant career.
Wednesday night in the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts, North Campus, Amherst.