Album review: Esperanza Spalding's 'Radio Music Society'
No matter how you felt about Esperanza Spalding’s 2011 Grammy win — and if you’re still genuinely disappointed, it’s time for a long look in the mirror — there’s no questioning her willingness to live up to it. Conceived as a companion to her breakthrough “Chamber Music Society,” Spalding’s follow-up melds airtight jazz with pop, funk and soul with such disarming assurance that it could be shipped with an introduction from the bassist-composer reading, “Now that I have your attention...”
Also released in a deluxe edition with sumptuously filmed videos for 11 of its 12 songs, “Radio Music Society” primarily delivers the sort of upbeat head-bobbers celebrated in opener “Radio Song,” a quaint, lilting valentine to musical discovery anchored by Spalding’s nimble vocal and rubbery electric bass line. Like the soulful sway of lead single “Black Gold,” it manages to aim for those who might not ordinarily listen to jazz while keeping the music firmly in its bones. Saxophone great Joe Lovano guests on a percolating cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It,” and 71-year-old drummer Billy Hart turns up on the swooning, big band-accented “Hold on Me.” Two tracks co-produced by Q-Tip merge with the record’s breezy, jazz-funk bounce seamlessly, including “City of Roses,” a Banana Republic-commissioned valentine to her Portland home that’s about as idyllic and tourism-friendly as it sounds.
Sometimes Spalding’s ambitions get the better of her, as with the moody but meandering social commentary “Vague Suspicions.” Her interpretation of Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species” strains with such knotty, fusion-shaded complexity that there’s little room left to breathe. Still, there’s no arguing with Spalding’s talent for disregarding expectations while spinning her influences into something new. Where she looks next is anybody’s guess, but it’ll be fascinating to hear.
-- Chris Barton