Esperanza Spalding had a good year in 2011. She became both the first jazz musician to win a Grammy for Best New Artist, and the first woman to be named Jazz Artist of the Year in DownBeat magazine’s reader’s poll. She performed with Prince in Los Angeles during his “Welcome 2 America” tour, toured as the bassist in saxophonist Joe Lovano’s Us Five band, and appeared on drummer Terri Lyne Carrington’s all-female CD The Mosaic Project and the Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival CD Walkin’ & Swingin’.
She also found time to put the finishing touches on Radio Music Society, the follow- up to Chamber Music Society, which, at more than 100,000 copies sold, was last year’s best selling contemporary jazz album. Spalding conceived of the new CD, her fourth, as a companion to its predecessor: She culled the material from the same spate of compositions but arranged and performed it in a way to explicitly express her pop sensibility. The band is again anchored by keyboard player Leo Genovese and drummer Carrington, but gone are the classical inspirations and string parts. In their place there’s a funky pop-jazz feeling, with concomitant instrumentation and personnel: electric keyboards and synths, some hard-charging guitar (by Jef Lee Johnson and Lionel Loueke), the brassy horn section of the American Music Program youth big band (directed by one of Spalding’s Portland mentors, Dr. Thara Memory), vocal contributions of Algebra Blessett, Lalah
Hathaway, Gretchen Parlato, Leni Stern, and Becca Stevens, and two appearances by hip-hop star Q-Tip.
The 12 songs are definitely radio friendly. Spalding’s singing is initially the main attraction, given front-and-center prominence in a lush mix that allows sounds to emerge from deep recesses in three-dimensional space. Her voice, a clear, expressive, unaffected, and occasionally soaring thing of beauty, deserves the attention. Running the gamut of topics from romance and self-esteem to social justice, her lyrics update the legacies of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Curtis Mayfield; and are there any better “radio music” precedents than those?
But Spalding’s phenomenal acoustic and electric bass playing, far more complex than you’ll hear on most pop albums, is emphasized almost equally in the luxuriant sonic landscape, just one of the many signals that this 27-year- old phenom has not cast aside her jazz loyalties; rather, she has broadened them. The compelling contributions of Lovano, trumpeter Darren Barrett, pianist Janice Scroggins (another of Spalding’s Portland teachers), and drumming legends Jack DeJohnette and Billy Hart reinforce the project’s jazz credibility even as Spalding defies purists with her pop expansiveness. Her cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It”—with snappy syncopations in the rhythm section, percolating guitar lines, svelte vocal harmonies, and light soulful sax soloing by Lovano—and her environmentalist original lyrics for Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species”—echoed by a mercurial muted trumpet and sci-fi electric keyboards—are both emblematic of the smart approach to jazz-pop that characterizes the entire album.
Radio Music Society is an ambitious recording that both offers immediate appeal and repays repeated listening with fascinating instrumental surprises: another giant step in Spalding’s ascent to stardom. (A deluxe edition adds more layers of meaning with 11 conceptual videos.)