Before Esperanza Spalding triumphed at the Grammys last year, winning Best New Artist honors while throwing fans of fellow contender Justin Bieber into a deep funk, she made the Washington rounds in style, appearing at the Kennedy Center, the Lincoln Theater and the White House. Good gigs. The bassist-vocalist-composer also performed at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 2009, at the invitation of President Obama, and at the Oscars last month.
“Radio Music Society,” her new concept album, indicates that Spalding won’t be suffering a career reversal anytime soon. Young, gifted and backed by an impressive array of pop, jazz and hip-hop talent, as well as some of her early mentors, the 27-year-old native of Portland, Ore., has created her most enticing, personal and thematically diverse collection yet, a welcome companion to her 2010 release “Chamber Music Society.”
Don’t bother looking for anything strikingly original. Spalding is a synthesist, not a ground-breaker. But from the outset, “Radio Music Society” reveals her pop instincts, jazz sensibilities and social awareness with ingenuity. “Radio Song,” a summery ode to rush-hour relief (“This song will keep you groovin’, keep traffic groovin’ ”) is the opener. It’s a simple, lighthearted lyric wed to a sophisticated arrangement that borrows freely from a variety of jazz, pop and Latin traditions. It’s also the first of several reminders of how Spalding, like the jazz-savvy Joni Mitchell before her, is capable of creating radio songs that have some musical heft.
Other engaging tunes follow suit. “Cinnamon Tree,” with its insinuating electric bass lines, perfectly suits Spalding’s lithe soprano. Saxophonist Joe Lovano helps soulfully rejuvenate Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It,” while Spalding’s torchy ballad “Hold on Me” radiates a brassy, blues-tinted allure. Thanks to Lovano and other jazz heavyweights, including drummers Terri Lyne Carrington, Billy Hart and Jack DeJohnette, Spalding is in excellent company throughout.
Ironically, some songs that stand out on “Radio Music Society” aren’t apt to snare widespread airplay. “Land of the Free” is inspired by the plight of Cornelius Dupree, who served 30 years in prison after being falsely accused of murder. It’s a stirring interlude, as is “Vague Suspicions,” a commentary on war, religion and the media. Saxophonist Wayne Shorter, a hero to both Spalding and Mitchell, is represented by “Endangered Species.”
Spalding contributes a cautionary lyric about ecological abuse to the imaginatively arranged performance, a showcase for guest vocalist Lalah Hathaway. On the other hand, “Black Gold,” the album’s first single, is bound to win Spalding a lot of new fans. In addition to offering words of encouragement to African American boys (“Hold your head as high as you can / high enough to see who you are, little man”), it boasts a bright and vibrant chorus.
The deluxe edition of “Radio Music Society” comes with a DVD that features a series of short films inspired by the music. Not surprisingly, the album’s socially relevant songs make the most lasting video impressions.
“Radio Song” “Black Gold” “Hold On Me”