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A Review of Esperanza Spalding’s “Radio Music Society”

Esperanza Spalding: Radio Music SocietyEsperanza Spalding shocked many in the music world when she beat out Justin Bieber for the Grammy Award for Best New Artist, about thirteen months ago. Bassists everywhere, likely less shocked, celebrated the win by one of our own.

This exciting bassist/vocalist has just released her latest record, Radio Music Society, and one which shows the Grammy was no fluke.

This endearing and beguiling record ranges widely, is equal parts lyrical and musical, yet retains a unity of sound and purpose as Spalding creates a confident and coherent new album.

Conceived as a companion to the ground-breaking Chamber Music Society, Radio Music Society shows a different side of Spalding’s music.

In interviews, she has described Radio Music Society as an “extrovert record” whereas Chamber Music Society was more introverted. Radio Music Society is designed to be accessible and to reach out to a wider audience. This does not mean the music is less complex or dumbed down, but that it is produced and presented in a way to suit the “radio format”.

Esperanza Spalding

Spalding is just one of the younger jazz musicians reaching out to new audience at the moment. Robert Glasper’s latest paid tribute reached out to a contemporary audience, Vijay Iyer’s trio draw in listeners with adventurous interpretations of Michael Jackson and Flying Lotus. It’s probably essential to try to reach a wider, more mixed audience as the typical jazz audience ages.

Spalding’s record subtly reaches out: it’s in the details that it works as jazz musicians playing pop influenced music – the beautiful mix, the drum sounds, the lilt of her electric bass, the general absence of long solos and the song-centered musicality. Her musicality is a given, but this bassist’s trump card here is her sumptuous voice.

She’s a phenomenon on bass too. On this, her fourth album, she plays both her upright bass and her fretless Fender Jazz. She says she plays fretless by accident. Fender just happened to send her that bass, but it is definitely part of her electric bass style. Her playing on electric is plain gorgeous: funky, bubbling, always driving the music forward and full of exquisite little details. It’s not like she solos on the instrument, but she has her own voice – syncopated to the maximum lots of little slurs and exuberant upward slides at the end of phrases. She quite often plays three notes chromatically – two notes leading into a target note – and she uses leading tones intuitively and many of her lines bear a nod to an Afro-Cuban influence.

Spalding has described listening to and transcribing Jaco Pastorius and Stevie Wonder’s keyboard bass lines. Although she says she’s not studied James Jamerson, Jamerson’s influence on Stevie’s style is paramount, so she is steeped in Jamerson’s music second-hand, if you like.

Spalding has also expressed admirations for electric bassists Anthony Jackson, Pino Palladino, Willie Weeks and Derrick Hodge, as well as Herbie Hancock’s keyboard bass. For decades I’ve been fascinated by the fretless’ potential for funkier lines, and it’s a real treat to hear Spalding’s very funky fretless playing on this record.

Now, the tunes:

The opener, “Radio Song”, talks of the experience of being uplifted by a fragment of music on the radio – the magical power of song. Shakers, bells and wordless vocals introduce the track, and then the groove is in: a gorgeously groovy electric bass line with Afro-Cuban influences grounding the light, soaring vocal. There are twists and turns of feel, bursts of Wayne Shorter-like saxophone, exuberant piano from Spalding’s long-time associate, Leo Genovese and nimble percussion. Basically a love song to a song.

Esperanza Spalding playing electric bass“Cinnamon Tree” is insanely catchy, while complex and mellow. This is a love song to platonic love (here metaphorically, as a tree). It begins reminiscent of Chamber Music Society as strings and brass set the mood. Then the band comes in and the track ranges widely in feel, from rock-influenced to soulful, and the song features some gorgeously spiky guitar. It’s the bassist’s voice that dominates though. She exudes confidence, self-belief and vision in her singing and music.

“Crowned & Kissed” (co-produced by Q Tip, of A Tribe Called Quest) has a real head nodding bass-focused groove. It’s a song about the nobility and regality of everyday people. Delicious rhythmic twists and turns, brass features and the soulful breathy vocal truly reach out to grab the listener. Spalding’s fretless lines make slithery use of octaves and slides. This one is possibly the catchiest 11/4 you will ever hear!

“Land of the Free” laments the 30 years spent in prison by Cornelius Dupree Jr. for a crime he has now been proven innocent. The lyrics are powerful and Spalding delivers them powerfully, accompanied only by a church-like organ.

This is immediately followed by “Black Gold”, which will resonate not just with a jazz audience, but with anyone who enjoys soul, gospel or funk. This track is wonderfully positive, melodically sophisticated, but sounding like pop music would sound if I imagined it. In my mind it summoned connections with the best of Earth Wind and Fire and Jill Scott’s music. The drumming is groove-laden, but not simplistic and predictable. Spalding’s fretless is high in the mix, with its chromatic lines, and the guitar chirps away soulfully while the vocals weave and soar, supported by rich organ chords. The short guitar solo is great and hints at expansion in a live context. The song is sophisticated, but accessible, and with powerful message in the lyrics! Spalding spoke of wanting to create something that spoke to young African American boys, giving a message of strength, resistance and endurance presenting images of pre-colonial Africa.

“I Can’t Help It” (originally written by Stevie Wonder for Michael Jackson) has an elegant, sensual lope. Gretchen Parlato, Becca Stevens and Justin Brown join on vocals and saxophonist Joe Lovano plays beautifully all over this track. The electric bass is effervescent and tremendous, the drums tight and eagerly ebullient. Gorgeous version.

“Hold on Me” features Dr. Thara Memory, from Portland, conducting the American Music Program Big Band and the great Billy Hart on drums. The theme is of unrequited love. It’s sung and played with passion – a great truly swinging vocal performance over a clever arrangement in what is quite a large stylistic departure for the album.

“Vague Suspicions” contrasts. It’s a subtle, almost introverted track on an extroverted record. It begins with exploratory pentatonic bass and chiming guitar and chattering cymbals. Deep brass, saxophones and flutes develop a deep spacious ballad mood and Spalding’s poetic lyrics add to the mood. Jack de Johnette’s drumming is thoughtful and sensitive throughout this track. The composition came to Spalding when she heard Charles Mingus’ “Blue Tide”. The lyrics describe how detached we become from the indiscriminate killing of war.

“Endangered Species” is an instant classic. What an excellent version of Wayne Shorter’s tune! Leo Genovese suggested the track to Spalding, who has always held the album it’s from, Atlantis, in high regard. What she’s done with the track is clever and groovy. Voices are used creatively – Lalah Hathaway sings the soprano saxophone part, for example. These guys sound like they are having a ball on this track! So many highlights: the Miles-influenced trumpet solo, the bubbling, Jaco-influenced bass, the delightful synth work on the track, the exquisite groove, the layers of vocals, the lyrics Esperanza wrote for the track… Give it a listen!

“Let Her” has agile, funky fretless; a convoluted hook that rewards repeated listens, a flowing keyboard solo and some quite wonderful, relaxed drumming. The lyrics here tell the story of a combination of many different people Spalding has known who live in miserable relationships and then complain when they are over.

“City of Roses” is co-produced by Q Tip again and is a love song to Portland, Oregon, Spalding’s home town. Drums again add a delightful bounce together with upright bass. A solo saxophone tells its story as Spalding tells of her love for the city and its people.

“Smile Like That” has Spalding returning to the upright. This tune has a charming, lilting bossa nova-like melody and features some expressive guitar from Gilad Hekselman and some lovely electric piano from Genovese (presumably). This is another song about ending relationships and it’s a strong way to end the album.

In the digital or DVD versions of the album, each of the songs are accompanied by conceptual short films which further express Spalding’s inspiration and story behind each track. I haven’t seen them myself yet, as they weren’t available with the advanced review copy. But this is a quite lovely record on its own.

I guess given her Grammy successes and White House performances, many more people know her name now and this record deserves a wide audience indeed.

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