If there's to be an unofficial ambassador for contemporary jazz then Esperanza Spalding could fit the bill nicely. The young bassist, singer, and composer brings a fresh exuberance marked by prodigious talent; honoring those who have paved the way, yet seeking to pursue her own path. Whether receiving the 2011 Grammy for "Best New Artist" or shining bright at the 2012 Academy Awards , in an unusual yet memorable performance, she's riding a wave of deserved recognition.
Where 2011's Chamber Music Society (Heads Up International) fronted a jazz trio with classical strings and voice, its companion release Radio Music Society reveals Spalding's passion for pop music forms. There was a time when jazz and pop music sometimes shared the airwaves on the same program lists, but that's an entirely different topic. As already proven on previous releases, she's quite convincing in almost any setting, while bringing her own whimsical and sophisticated style to the program.
The set is a veritable songbook as Spalding delivers her dual threat of sublime singing and swinging basses, with some help from an impressive roster of artists. There's the ebullient "Radio Song" that spins an infectious arrangement with vocal harmonies in the vein of The Manhattan Transfer and Take 6, or pleasant surprises such as Michael Jackson's hit "I Can't Help It," written by Stevie Wonder, with raspy notes from saxophonist Joe Lovano.
Yet there are multilayered qualities at work in Spalding's compositions. Contrapuntal harmonies are present in "Cinnamon Tree," which switches from balladry to dark toned funk provided by guitarist Jef Lee Johnson. But there's also awareness of social issues in the uplifting words of "Black Gold," dedicated to young boys of color, or the bittersweet irony of "Land Of The Free"sweetness found in Spalding's supple voice yet bitter truths heard in lyrics that speak about injustices in the criminal justice system.
If there's one song that stumbles, it's the lighthearted tale of an inevitable breakup in "Let Her." But there are also moments of weightier brilliance such as "Vague Suspicions," whose video provided in the deluxe edition is simply riveting, as the music is brought to life in scenes of serenity and war casualties from opposing views. There's a plethora of good music throughout the set: funky horn vamps; an '80s electronic fusion-like grooves in Wayne Shorter's "Endangered Species," where Spalding shows here electric bass skills; and some Lena Horne-like glam on "Hold On Me," in a swanky big band setting.
Not fitting neatly into either a jazz or pop music box can present a conundrum for some fans and critics, but Spalding's interests are clearly diverse. She's more than just another pretty face who can sing and play what everyone wants. Her words and music, as continued in Radio Music Society, are telling new stories in her own voice.
Radio Song; Cinnamon Tree; Crowned & Kissed; Land of the Free; Black Gold; I Can't Help It; Hold On Me; Vague Suspicions; Endangered Species; Let Her; City of Roses; Smile Like That.
Esperanza Spalding: vocals, electric and acoustic bass; Leo Genovese: piano, Rhodes, guembri, keyboards (1-3, 6,8-12); Terri Lyne Carrington: drums (1-3, 5,9, 11);
Anthony Diamond: saxophone (11); Q-Tip: vocals, glockenspiel (11);
Jamie Haddad: percussion (1); Gretchen Parlato: background vocals, spoken word (1, 6, 10); Raydar Ellis: spoken word, sounds (10); Leni Stern: background vocals (10,
Becca Stevens: background vocals (1, 6); Justin Brown: background vocals (1, 6);
Alan Hampton: background vocals (1); Chris Turner: background vocals (1);
Darren Barrett: trumpet (1, 2, 3, 9, 10, 12); Jeff Galindo: trombone (1,3,8,10, 12);
Daniel Blake: saxophones, flute, (1, 2 ,3 ,8 ,9, 10); Jef Lee Johnson: guitar (2, 9);
Olivia Deprado: violin: (2); Jody Redhage: viola (2); James Weidman: organ (4);
Algebra Blessett: vocals (5); Savannah Children's Choir: choral voices (5);
Lionel Loueke: guitar, voice (5); Raymond Angry: organ (5);
Tivon Penicott:tenor saxophone(5); Igmar Thomas: trumpet (5);
Corey King: trumpet (5); Joe Lovano: tenor saxophone (6);
Ricardo Vogt: guitar (6, 8, 10); Lyndon Rochelle: drums (6);
Janice Scroggins: piano (7); Billy Hart: drums (7); Jack DeJohnette: drums (8, 10, 12);
Lalah Hathaway: vocals (9); Gilad Hekselman: guitar (12).
American Music Program (Big Band):
Kama Bell: clarinet (1, 7, 11); Andrew Olsen: alto saxophone (1, 7, 11);
John Carey: alto saxophone (1, 7, 11); Adam Reihs: tenor saxophone (1, 7, 11);
Kyle Zimmerman: alto saxophone (1, 7, 11); Renato Caranto: alto saxophone (1, 7, 11);
Stanley Matabane: tenor, alto saxophone (1, 7, 11);
Nicole Glover: tenor saxophone (1, 7, 11); Jeff Rathbone: baritone saxophone (1, 7, 11);
Benjamin C. McDonald: trumpet (1, 7, 11); Benjamin Seacrest: trumpet (1, 7, 11);
Sam Seacrest: alto saxophone (1, 7, 11); Noah Conrad: trumpet (1, 7, 11);
Hayden Conrad:tenor saxophone (1, 7, 11); Tre Palmedo: trumpet (1, 7, 11);
Noah Hocker: trumpet (1, 7, 11); Kiran Bosely: trumpet (1, 7, 11);
Stan Bock: trombone (1, 7, 11); Dan Brewster: trombone (1, 7, 11);
Jerry Stalnaker:bass trombone(1, 7, 11); Ian Garner: trombone (1, 7, 11);Javier Nero: trombone (1, 7, 11); Matt Warming: trombone (1, 7, 11); Ashton Summers: trombone (1, 7, 11); Aaron Reihs: tenor saxophone (1, 7, 11).