True artists shine in concert: Esperanza Spalding, Cassandra Wilson, Marcus Miller

True artists know how to captivate an audience. Inspiration from their musical mentors may have something to do with it. Bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding is an artist who knows how to captivate an audience. Just ask Prince. He is very supportive of her work. She’s coming to the State Theatre on September 30. Spalding’s latest Heads Up International album is Radio Music Society. According to her label press release, the album is “a companion, rather than a sequel, to Spalding’s previous disc, Chamber Music Society,” also from Heads Up International.

The extent to which she has represented the thrust of this current “jazz” era has come into question time again in various articles, especially

after last year’s Grammy win. She won Best New Artist at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards last February. What would be interesting

to know is what she feels is the extent of her contributions in light of what’s happening in jazz now.

I’d also be interested in her thoughts on whether or not she just might be the most prominent so-called “post-racial” jazz musician on the scene, as described by Nate Chinen in an article he wrote for Jazz- Times in April 2011.

Esperanza Spalding will play the
State Theatre in Minneapolis
on Sept. 30.
Photos courtesy of the Dakota

No matter what, at her State Theatre performance, Spalding will no doubt continue to express honesty and sincerity in her sound. One song I hope she highlights is “Cinnamon Tree,” which was written to cheer up a friend, and celebrates platonic love as Spalding believes that “the love between friends is just as important as romantic love.”

Maybe Spalding will choose to feature “Black Gold” where she specifically addresses young boys of color. She said that she wanted to addressour nobility, going back to our incredible ancestors in pre-colonial Africa. Spalding also added in her press notes, “I remember meetings when I was in elementary school about being strong as young Black women, and I don’t think the boys had those meetings. This song is meant to speak to those young men.”

Radio Music Society is supporting Free the Slaves, an organization dedicated to ending slavery worldwide. A portion from the sale of the merchandise on her North American tour was donated to this organization.

Spalding knows the value of essential mentorship, as she includesfour tracks on the new album that feature the horn section of the American Music Program, a youth big band of musicians age 12 to 18 that is directed by her longtime mentor and teacher Dr. Thara Memory, who conducted and provided horn arrangements. Parlato also appears on Radio Music Society.

Cassandra Wilson also knows how to captivate an audience. You can ask Prince about her, too, because he’s a fan. You will be a fan as well, if you decide to check out her vocals come October 14 and 15 at the Dakota. Her new album is Another Country (eOne) She’s been described as “America’s best singer” and for good reason. Wilson is an original who knows how to inspire and challenge her band by sharing the spotlight. What could be more captivating than that?

Marcus Miller is another artist who knows how to captivate an audience. His second set during his second night at the Dakota on Wednesday, September 12, offered concertgoers the chance to fully experience an artist and bandleader at his finest. The set had so many things going for it. For one thing, the sound was top-notch. The band was on fire. The audience was enthusiastic.

Cassandra Wilson will perform at the Dakota Oct. 14-15.
Photo by Marco Glaviano courtesy of Sacks & Co.

There were so many highlights, including Miller playing bass clarinet on his composition “Gorée” (“go-ray”), which was inspired by a visit Miller and his young band paid to the African island historically remembered as a warehouse for human cargo before being shipped from the motherland to places elsewhere for the people to become slaves.

The band, with Federico Gonzalez Peña on piano, Lee Hogan on trumpet and Alex Han on alto saxophone, mostly played music from Miller’s new album Renaissance (Concord Records) as well as music from A Night in Monte Carlo (Concord Records). Yet, there was a moment when the band broke it down and got into a kind of swingin’ bebop interlude that totally woke me up and brought me back to the one.

It happened after Miller gave both Hogan and Han their chance to shine. Bam! Then suddenly thoughts of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Art Blakey came to mind. The way each man would shine a light on individual musicians in their bands. The sounds they were able to get from those men. Pure inspiration. Well, this is where Miller went full force. And he is to be commended for leading by example.

Hogan and Han (Miller originally met them at Berklee College of Music) are young players well on their way to becoming accomplished musicians. Whoever said Miller was a sophisticated musical thinker and virtuoso got that right, but they definitely didn’t give him credit for his bandleading and mentoring skills. Basie, Ellington and Blakey would be proud. Weldon Irvine, his early mentor from Jamaica, Queens in New York where Miller is also from, would be proud, too. He opened the set with a song he rearranged by Weldon, titled “Mr. Clean.”

Young trumpeters Sean Jones and Maurice Brown are featured on Renaissance, as well as Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition Award winner keyboardist Kris Bowers. Up-and-coming singer Gretchen Parlato, who was the first vocalist ever admitted into the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance program, also contributes vocals to Renaissance. All musicians play, and sing enthusiastically, whether it be soloing, or as a unit, and sound truly inspired on the album.

Robin James welcomes reader responses to