Radio Music Society
One of the highlights of the 2011 jazz year occurred when bassist, vocalist, composer and bandleader Esperanza Spalding snared a Best New Artist Grammy for her album Chamber Music Society. The high-profile accolade affirmed the young musician’s fast-rising status while helping to push jazz into the public discourse.
On her follow-up, Radio Music Society, Spalding moves out of the chamber-jazz setting and into sophisticated, jazz-infused R&B that’s built around her clear, understated vocals. No, Spalding has not gone pop. For all the infectious refrains and soulful grooves of her new set list, she’s hardly dumbing down her craft. The opener, “Radio Song,” demonstrates this new blend. Fiendishly catchy, the track detours into complex jazz twists and rubberized time feels.
Inspired by jazz-fueled R&B artists of the ’70s, Spalding’s slinky arrangement of Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It” features a hearty Joe Lovano tenor solo. Echoes of Rufus; Shuggie Otis; and Earth, Wind & Fire are detectable, too. However, Spalding’s bone-deep allegiance to jazz is obvious by her use of intricate compositional and textural elements, and by her notable guests. Drummer Jack DeJohnette, vocalist Gretchen Parlato and guitarist Lionel Loueke all join her here.
Featuring a limber solo from Loueke, “Black Gold” is an emotionally charged, anthemic statement of empowerment. The neo-soul tune “Crowned & Kissed” ingratiates itself with a hypnotic chorus teased by a snaky 11/4 meter. Meanwhile, “Hold on Me” sounds like a little-big-band outing, a sassy slow blues boasting a fresh and tangy compositional wit. The closing track, “Smile Like That,” layers its harmonically restless, spidery melodic line over a deceptively easy-flowing groove. And Spalding simply dazzles with her vocal version of Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species.”
Radio Music Society is even more worthy of a Grammy than its predecessor. Regardless, Spalding’s brilliant career continues apace, with creative wattage to spare.
— Josef Woodard