Esperanza Spalding, “Radio Music Society” (Heads Up)
It’s somehow fitting that Esperanza Spalding sang the Louis Armstrong hit “What a Wonderful World” at the Oscars, because her career arc bears certain similarities to the jazz legend’s. She began primarily as an instrumentalist, developed her own distinctive vocal style to accompany her bass playing, and on her new CD, she has embraced the pop music of her day without sacrificing her jazz roots.
The CD complements the bassist-vocalist’s previous release, “Chamber Music Society,” an intimate, acoustic melding of classical, jazz and world music. However, “Radio Music Society” is an extroverted, electric fusion of R&B, neo-soul and hip-hop with jazz, performed by a genre-spanning lineup including R&B singer Lalah Hathaway, rapper Q-Tip acting as a producer, and jazz drummers Jack DeJohnette and Terri Lyne Carrington.
“Radio Song,” about flipping through the dial until a catchy tune grabs you, opens her most accessible album that spotlights her singing and songwriting skills. The track has the dance beats, funky bass grooves, horn section accents and background vocals common to pop music, but Spalding’s arrangement veers off in unexpected directions with shifting rhythms and some wordless vocalizing.
Some of Spalding’s songs are about love — such as the bold and brassy “Hold On Me” and the soothing, lullaby-like “Cinnamon Tree.” But she also ventures for the first time into overtly political themes — including a poignant duet with organist James Weidman on “Land of the Free” about a Texas man who was exonerated on DNA evidence after being imprisoned for 30 years for rape. “Black Gold,” with R&B singer Algebra Blessett taking lead vocals, is an uplifting anthem meant to instill pride in young boys about their rich African heritage.
On most tracks, Spalding plays the electric Fender fretless bass favored by Jaco Pastorius when he played with the jazz-rock band Weather Report. She also wrote original lyrics for Weather Report co-leader Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species,” reflecting her passion for the fusion music of the 1970s when the best jazz artists incorporated modern electric sounds without dumbing down their music.
Some tracks are ordinary or gimmicky like “Let Her” with its telephone sound effects. But “Radio Music Society,” which is accompanied by music videos depicting the stories behind its songs, shows that Spalding’s upset win over Justin Bieber for best new artist at last year’s Grammys was entirely deserved.
Check this track out: On “I Can’t Help It,” a Stevie Wonder song sung by Michael Jackson, Spalding’s funky bass accompanies her breathy, soaring vocals, enhanced by tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano’s sensuously twisting lines, to achieve a jazz-pop fusion that makes the song all her own.