Latest release from superstar celebrity bassist cuts across many genres, on both upright and electric
Radio Music Society is the latest release from Esperanza Spalding, the Oregon native and Berklee alum who catapulted from virtual unknown to superstardom, still a few years shy of her thirtieth birthday. Over the past half-decade, Esperanza has garnered respect from much of the jazz royalty, including Jack DeJohnette and Joe Lovano, received an invitation from Barack Obama to perform at the White House and snagged the Best New Artist GRAMMY in 2011 (much to the chagrin of the Justin Bieber faithful). Spalding’s previous releases, Junjo (2006), Esperanza (2008) and Chamber Music Society (2010) all received high praise and critical acclaim from the jazz community.
Radio Music Society, according to Esperanza, is actually a companion to Chamber Music Society (which, by the way, reached No. 1 on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz chart). “Originally I thought it would be fun to release a double album,” says Spalding, “one disc with an intimate, subtle exploration of chamber works and a second one in which jazz musicians explore song forms and melodies that are formatted more along the lines of what we would categorize as ‘pop songs.’ Those are the two ways of looking at music that really interest me.”
In addition to being a major talent in her own right, Spalding is also known for surrounding herself with “A-list” players, her latest release being no exception. In addition to DeJohnette and Lovano, Radio includes keyboardist Leo Genovese, drummers Terri Lyne Carrington and Billy Hart, percussionist Quintino Cinalli, guitarists Jef Lee Johnson and Lionel Loueke and a strong cadre of vocalists, including the legendary Milton Nascimento, Algebra Blessett, Lalah Hathaway, Gretchen Parlato, Leni Stern and Becca Stevens. Gil Goldstein, who produced Chamber Music Society, is also back, co-arranging a string trio with Spalding.
Rounding out the supporting cast are hip-hop giant Q-Tip, who also co-produced two tracks, and two Portland-area mentors of young Esperanza, Janice Scroggins and Dr. Thara Memory. “Janice Scroggins was, quite honestly, too deep for me when I was eight years old,” Esperanza reflects. “She unifies completely the sounds of gospel, blues and jazz, our American roots music.” Dr. Memory conducts and provides arrangements for the horn section of the American Music Program, a big band comprised of musicians aged 12 to 18 (though you’d never know it) that are featured on four tracks.
Adding to the appeal of Radio Music Society is a collection of accompanying videos, or “conceptual short films,” shot on location in New York City; Barcelona, Spain; and Portland, Oregon, among other places. Every song on Radio Music Society has a personal message, a special meaning Esperanza wants to portray. The videos, which dramatically enhance these messages, are available to purchasers of Radio Music Society as a digital download or, in the deluxe version, a DVD.
For whatever reason, the question on a lot of people’s minds is: “Is this jazz or pop, or what?” Though it’s probably somewhere in between, it really doesn’t matter what you call it. “I’ve tried to put together a program of music that speaks to the non-jazz listener, but can still provide a viable foundation for my jazz heroes to express themselves,” says Spalding. “Hopefully, people can enjoy all the elements of my music without being told which genres it is ‘supposedly’ a blend of.” Amen.
The songs on Radio Music Society express a variety of musical “feels” that flow gracefully from one to the next, weaving the entire project into a thematic celebration of teachers, mentors, victims, lovers and friends. What’s more, Esperanza’s youthful optimism and energy are prevalent throughout the album’s twelve songs.
Spalding’s sparkling personality is palpable, from the opening number, “Radio Song,” where she takes the common everyday occurrence of stumbling upon something new on the car radio and transforming it into a moving experience. “It’s about the power of song,” she says, “and how at the least it can save the day.” Her optimism and encouragement are also evident in “City of Roses,” a tribute to Esperanza’s native Portland, Oregon, a song commissioned by Banana Republic. Even her smile often shines through loud and clear in her singing.
Esperanza has much to express about the nature of personal relationships, with no less than five songs confronting the subject head-on. Sentiments run the gamut, from savoring the value of a childhood friendship (“Cinnamon Tree”) and the apprehension of a new love (Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It”) to unrequited love (“Hold on Me”) and the discovery of a partner developing other interests (“Smile Like That”).
She proclaims her dismay with the some of the inexplicable wrongdoings the world has known, including false imprisonment of the innocent (“Land of the Free”), the desensitization of society (“Vague Suspicions”) and the dire need to preserve our precious planet earth (by way of a re-work of Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species”).
The human spirit theme transcends into two other compositions on Radio Music Society. Using the metaphor of King Arthur and Midas, “Crowned and Kissed” is an appreciation of “men and women who quietly, every day do the most honorable things, and who deserve to be honored even if they don’t end up with castles and thrones.” In yet another perspective, “Let Her,” one of Spalding’s earlier works, is a reminder of how some people just can’t appreciate what they have until they lose it.
The first single off the album, “Black Gold,” is a tribute to individuals’ strength and feelings of self-worth and pride. “I remember meetings when I was in elementary school,” recounts Esperanza, “about being strong as young black women, and I don’t think the boys had those meetings. This song is meant to speak to those young men, and I imagined it might one day be something that a parent could sing to his or her son.” The sentiment is accentuated in a poignant scene in the accompanying video, where a (presumably single) black man, walking his young sons home from school, is disappointed by the lack of substance in the boys’ African heritage lesson taught that day. Feeling compelled to offer his own history lesson, the father opens an African history book and enlightens the young ones with stories and images of influential Africans, including Sundiata Keita, Salif Keita, Miriam Makeba and Nelson Mandela.
Esperanza Spalding is a supremely talented musician, writer and storyteller, who also happens to be a great bass player! Throughout Radio Music Society, she demonstrates strong playing, on both upright and electric bass. Her grooving is confident, energetic, sometimes funky, yet not “in your face,” as is often the case in many records by bass players. There’s a lot of information in Radio Music Society, spanning genres from hip-hop, R&B, funky, crossover pop and big band. Somehow, though, she pulls it off, smoothly transitioning from one to the next.
For those who still need an answer to the “Is it jazz?” question, I’m pretty sure I heard a nod to “Donna Lee” in Esperanza’s upright solo, a horn ensemble passage very reminiscent of “Some Skunk Funk,” a beautiful trumpet solo that could easily be described as a tribute to Miles and several instances of “Zawinul-like” keyboard playing, not to mention a Rhodes accompaniment, clear as day (and by the way, I’m not aware of Jack DeJohnette or Joe Lovano having played on any Lady Gaga records). “Art doesn’t thrive with too much analyzing and explaining,” says Esperanza. In that case, then, it’s whatever you want it to be. Just listen and enjoy.
Review by Jon Liebman
Photos by Carlos Pericas
Radio Music Society is available here
Chamber Music Society is available here