Album Watch: Esperanza Spalding Welcomes You To Her 'Radio Music Society'

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

At the time of Esperanza Spalding's Best New Artist Grammy win, criticisms shot like spitwads through straws all because how dare this 'fro'ed bassist from Portland, Oregon trump over mainstream moppets like Justin Bieber and Drake? No not, "how dare", "how great" should be the substitute phrase. Even though the New Artist label can be viewed as a blessing and a curse depending on who snags it, Spalding seemed to take everything in stride, making it plain that the Grammy's (for once) didn't have a brain aneurysm and select a person for the sake of popularity, but for just unmarred talent.

Though technically Spalding wasn't a brand new artist (as her 2006 debut album, Junjo, and breakthrough 2008 set, Esperanza, will tell you otherwise), she was a new kid at the cafeteria table who finally got noticed, as she touched on a road less traveled in today's music world. Over the course of her albums, she had proven that she spins the traditional with the modern, making sure she stays true to herself, but shows her influences right on the heart of the sleeve.

She also keeps roots in a genre that often forgotten as being the basis of all the other genres that came after it---but she lets everyone know that by way of merging the Jazz genre in with more accessible tones, she can create a unit of sound that charms. Once again, on her now fourth effort, Radio Music Society, Spalding has done just that, and to even better results.

Coincidentally this year, another 'radio' themed record received a release. Robert Glasper Experiment released the fantastic Black Radio, which also merges the urges of Jazz, Hip-Hop, and Soul pitting them in marital bliss. The similarities of the albums aren't necessarily mutually exclusive in music composition, but in the idea. The idea of re-evaluating and going back to the grassroots notions of radio days, to where it champions the act of  'what radio could sound like' or 'what radio should sound like'.

While Glasper achieves overall in the thought of creating an idea of what 'Black radio' should/would sound like, on the flip-side, Esperanza's album plays out a bit differently, as she's not necessarily focused on a theme, but rather just the various twists and turns Black music, and just music in general has taken throughout the decades---and she packs in a lot in just twelve songs. Yet, it's surprisingly quite concise as a full project.

She dips into Billie and Ella waters in a big band vibe on "Hold On Me" or plays the quiet time route with tender hometown praise on "City Of Roses". She does what Jill Scott probably should have done on Light Of The Sun on the zesty "Let Her". Some Roberta Flack soul swing is exercised on lead-off single, "Radio Song" while the lovely poetic of "Crowned & Kissed" is poised. Algebra Blessett expertly assists her on "Black Gold" which keeps in mind African rhythms as well as subjectively gets to the heart of the matter in it's pride of the African Diaspora.

Jazz fusion is given a go with a slight Samba twist spinning in the spacey snake twisting arrangement of, "Vague Suspicions", and wholly reminds one of the eclectic adventures of Weather Report. Speaking of Weather Report, Wayne Shorter's "Endangered Species" (with the helping butter rich voice of Lalah Hathaway) is given a righteous spin. In all, Spalding peels back all layers of  Jazz's hot buttered biscuit, and just when you think she's had enough, she comes back for seconds.

While overall of a patchwork of sound themes, the all-out stunners come in a pair for me. Spalding's turn at a favored Michael Jackson track, "I Can't Help It" is blisteringly excellent. Elongated, spiced, but keeping in mind Stevie Wonder's simplistic yet elegant melancholy, it really excites. "Cinnamon Tree" causes the soul shiver with it's impeccable phrasing and subtle delivery that feels like a warm hug, and it wraps around you lovingly---I can't praise the song enough right down to it's guitar work and the way Spalding's vocals swell and deflate so wonderfully.

It was evident when Spalding went baroque and concocted 2010's classically astute, Chamber Music Society, that she was cut from a different cloth. An album that screamed slight pretension, but in its showcase really didn't feel all that exclusionary as within it you saw honest ambition being done in a music climate that's not used to being well, schooled in that kind of music sense. On Chamber, she reached way back into the old school, and sometimes you have to do that in order to go forward in the present.

She's constructed the past vs. present bridge once again on Radio Music Society, as she's given the yang to Chamber's ying, just with brighter and funkier results. Radio is tuned into a frequency that has Spalding appealing to the masses, making her accessible to those who want to discover Jazz and all of it's parts, as she gives listeners a lesson in the mutations that the traditional formats of music can take. Class is in-session when you stride into this society.

Release Date: March 20, 2012
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  1. Great article. I'm looking forward to buying this album.

    1. Thank you :) Hope you enjoy the album as much as I did!

  2. Playing now, and loving it.-QH


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