The new Esperanza Spalding album is widely anticipated. The bassist and singer finds herself in the rare situation of crossing over to mainstream audiences by making new music her peers widely respect. In the jazz world, that's made her a household name; when she was named Best New Artist at the 2011 Grammy Awards, the broader pop musical community briefly took notice too. All that means a great many fans have been waiting on her next move, many with some rooting interest in how it'll be talked about.
The new Esperanza Spalding album is a pop record. Well, "pop record" in scarequotes. Spalding is fascinated with the idea of sticking jazz-trained musicians in musical settings usually thought of as "pop": backbeats, background horn sections, background singers, songs about romantic relationships, a Michael Jackson cover actually written by Stevie Wonder ("I Can't Help It"), '80s synths and studio-isolated floor toms and the "boing" of an electric bass. It's titled Radio Music Society, as if to suggest a club dedicated to investigating the mysteries of the Top 40 charts with pianos and saxophones and drum kits.
The new Esperanza Spalding album is all over the place. That's neither pejorative nor praise; it simply is. There are songs protesting the justice system, lamenting the state of our news media, celebrating the history of the African diaspora. There are also songs about love won, love affirmed, love unrequited, love lost, love about to be lost. There's a song by high-modernist saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter ("Endangered Species"). There's a song entirely about her childhood home of Portland, Ore. ("City Of Roses"). There are no fewer than five guest vocalists, two guest guitarists, two jazz drum heroes (Jack DeJohnette and Billy Hart), two early teachers from Portland, one member of A Tribe Called Quest (Q-Tip, who produced two songs), a whole bunch of student musicians in a big band and plenty of other folks — younger and older and in-between — who she regularly tours with. It is packed to the gills in every way.
Radio Music Society is thus big budget, and big ambition, and big on expectation. But Spalding doesn't seem fazed by the prospect, and if she is, she simply reverts to what she does best. "Now you can't help singing along / even though you never heard it / you keep singing it wrong / this song will keep you grooving," she sings on the opening track. It's about the serendipity of discovering a great song on the radio; appropriately, it's filled with ear candy moments of la-la-la and alotofwordssungreallyquickly and call-and-response set to vaguely Afro-Latin piano. It's cheery and earnest and the slightest bit cheesy in an endearing way. And it's hard to begrudge that sort of happiness.
-- By Patrick Jarenwattananon
Radio Music Society will be available to stream on demand from March 12 through its release date on March 20, 2012.