Spalding delights despite being upstaged

Esperanza Spalding at the Jazz Fest. (Dave Thomas/QMI Agency)

Esperanza Spalding at the Jazz Fest. (Dave Thomas/QMI Agency)

Jason MacNeil, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:18 AM ET

TORONTO - Jazz sensation Esperanza Spalding turned heads with her 2011 Grammy Award win for Best New Artist, an award the Portland-bred bassist/vocalist earned in a who's who of buzz acts.

On Thursday evening at the TD Jazz Festival before a sold-out crowd at Nathan Phillips Square, Spalding showed why she's deserving of such accolades, even if the initial moments started off a little too horny … er … brassy.

With an eight-piece horn section to her left, Spalding warmed herself and her 11-piece Radio Music Society Band up for the ensuing two hours with Us. But the horns were quite overpowering in the mix, leaving Spalding fighting for space when she should've been front and centre.

Fortunately, by the time Hold On Me concluded and Spalding plucked her upright bass perfectly, the horns found their place, accenting the singer instead of drowning her out or allowing one or two horns to gently complement.

Touring behind her new album Radio Music Society, Spalding occasionally went on an adventurous tangent with the songs, generally getting a groove early and riding it for several minutes. This was particularly true during the funky-fuelled I Can't Help It with Spalding playing off of alto saxophonist Tia Fuller which earned loud applause.

If there was one obstacle, it might have been the, at times, awkward and just plain odd between song band Spalding offered up. Routinely introducing songs as if she was in theatre class honing dramatic asides, she often left the audience with a deer-in-the-headlights look.

Thankfully those moments were forgotten with fine artistry on several numbers including Smile Like That and Let Her. Meanwhile Crowned & Kissed which she dedicated to the “kings” in the crowd was extremely pleasing thanks to Spalding and trombonist Jeff Galindo working double time.

On a night where her 2010 breakthrough album Chamber Music Society was basically left at a recital hall far, far away, Spalding's biggest highlight was without question Black Gold. Backing vocalist Chris Turner gently kicked the song off before the soul-meets-R-and-B nugget steadily grew. A standing ovation from some at its closing seemed to put a bigger smile on Spalding's face.

The set's homestretch began with moments of breezy, dreamy jazz thanks to Vague Suspicions and Cinnamon Tree, the latter far more streamlined to the album version than some of the night's earlier efforts. The only tune which didn't hit the mark was Endangered Species. In fact the only thing that was hit was trombonist Corey King's lectern which toppled over along with the sheet music.

Thanking the crowd for coming with her on this musical journey, Spalding wrapped up the main set with the new album's first track Radio Song, matching the radio image which hung in front of the horn section. Repeating the refrain about singing with love in your heart, the singer felt a lot of love leaving the stage.

Setlist

Us

Hold On Me

I Can't Help It

Let Her

Crowned & Kissed

Black Gold

Vague Suspicions

Cinnamon Tree

Endangered Species

Radio Song

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