Scores of treble-voiced, shiny preteens exploded 13 months ago when jazz bassist/multi-instrumentalist/composer Esperanza Spalding beat out Justin Bieber for the Grammy Award for Best New Artist.
Prior to her 2011 triumph, Spalding was regularly appearing at the Lincoln Theatre, the Kennedy Center and even played a small show for the first family at the White House, on President Barack Obama’s personal invitation. The Portland, Ore. native has been a pillar of the modern Jazz community for years, beginning with her first release “Junjo,” in 2006. Since her introduction, the jazz bassit-vocalist has collaborated with the likes of Nando Michelin, M. Ward and Stanley Clarke.
Conceived as a companion and follow-up to her 2009 effort “Chamber Music Society,” Spalding’s latest record blends modern and familiar jazz with funk, pop, chamber and soul with such an enchanting confidence, it’s clear that she is determined to force those millions of hair-swooshing, tooth-whitening, lovesick 12-year-olds to take a long, uncomfortable look in the mirror.
“Radio Music Society” was released via Heads Up International on March 20, debuting at number ten on the Billboard 200 and at number one on the Billboard Top Jazz Albums.
The praise is deserved. For those who have found Spalding’s abilities easier to appreciate than enjoy, Radio Music Society is the 27-year-old’s most accessible release to date. Beyond approachability, RMS displays a vocal awareness of modern radio culture. The opening track “Radio Song” is an upbeat, blithe, summery anthem begging to drown your car stereo in good vibes. The melody and lyrics are simple in their intent to distract from the day-to-day monotony of life — “this song will keep you groovin’/ keep traffic grooving.’”
It’s refreshing to see a modern artist — especially a jazz artist — marry complicated and clever arrangements with radio-ready accessibility with such ease. The soulful command of tunes like “Radio Song,” or “Black Gold” aim for those listeners who might not ordinarily find themselves attracted to modern jazz, while still flexing its roots in the traditional.
Saxophone legend Joe Lovano shines on a particularly enthusiastic cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It,” and drummer Billy Hart dominates the big-band chart “Hold On Me.” Two tracks off of Radio Music Society, “City of Roses” and “Cinnamon Tree” are produced by legendary rapper/producer Q-Tip, of A Tribe Called Quest fame.
The juxtaposition of collaborators Hart and Lovano, with the modern ingenuity of Q-Tip’s production accurately captures the marriage of traditional jazz and contemporary pop/fusion sensibilities contained within Spalding’s latest record.
As a concept album, Radio Music Society brings into focus the elements of songwriting that we as listeners and promoters value, providing delicate but challenging commentary on the current state of radio culture in America. There’s no denying Spalding’s inherent talent for destroying expectations while gentle weaving classic influences and social commentary into something new and beautiful.
Where the young award-winning musician will turn next is anyone’s guess, but you can believe it will be thought-provoking. Radio Music Society was released on Heads Up International on March 27 and is available for streaming and consumption on the WVKC digital library. Get it, get it, get it, get it, get it!