Esperanza Spalding is, as they say, polymath. She can do jazz, she can do classical, she can do blues, she can do pop/rock. The only thing I’ve not heard her do is Gospel. And she writes her own stuff, as well as giving spiffy reinterpretations to tunes by Stevie Wonder, Wayne Shorter and others. And did I mention the girl has a nice (though somewhat thin) voice, and can play the daylights out of the bass (her primary instrument).
Her new CD, Radio Music Society, comes on the heels of her having already won last year’s Grammy for Best new Artist, the first time a jazz musician has ever done so and according to the interview in Jazz Times, we should see this album as a companion to its predecessor, Chamber Music Society. While the previous album has lots of strings, the new one has lots of grooves and jazz orchestra stuff. It is clear that Ms. Spalding cares as little for genre pigeon holing as Spalding cares for non-orange basketballs. Indeed, her work could be called genre-bending, to good effect.
Of the two albums, Radio Music Society will definitely get more MOR airplay, and indeed cross over onto pop charts as well. It is more accessible to mp3 mavens and downloaders in general. In the article in Jazz Times, she makes clear that she does not see herself as some sort of reviver of the jazz tradition or of interest in jazz. She’s just following her muse and doing what she feels led to do. I say— you go girl. Don’t let anyone stifle your creative spark by trying to categorize you and then judge you on the basis that ‘this is not how traditional jazz should sound’. Let’s consider the album itself. It is a viable candidate for album of the year already, and I don’t just mean jazz lp of the year.
First of all, what strikes you about the album is the diversity of textures, and yet the accessibility of it all. In some ways I would compare it to the award winning older album by Quincy Jones called The Dude, though that was more of an all star ensemble cast. This album is clearly mostly tunes composed arranged and sung by Esperanza (dig her world class Fro) though we do have Lalah Hathaway on a track, and also her friend Joe Lovano.
Secondly, some of the tracks are infectious and immediately singable— for example Black Gold or City of Roses (yes she is from Portland Or.). It is clear enough she has been influenced by not only Jones, but Donny Hathaway, and various tuneful R+B and soul artists (including Stevie). Yet you cannot escape the jazz sensibility of the whole thing. I would liken it to Joni Mitchell’s great jazz influenced pop albums, like for example Court and Spark or the Hissing of Summer Lawns. Esperanza is not yet the lyricist Joni was and is, but she is working on it. Like the best Mitchell albums, this albums bears listening to, over and over again, and seems fresh each time.
Thirdly as a bonus, the album comes with a coded card that allows you to have free videos by her at her website www.esperanzaspalding.com. One wonders why few have made use of this idea before. Fourthly, the gatefold CD is itself cool , opening up to show old speakers, and then descriptions of the songs and artists playing. Clearly, Esperanza is not enamored with the tendency to denude music of its ethos and artistic framework through mere downloading. Good for her!
There is nothing not to like about this tasty and tuneful album. I hope she continues to pursue this musical trajectory for a while, as well as exploring others. If your jazz education has been slim or none, maybe here is a good place to start before you dig into the like of Miles, Trane, Evans, Shorter etc.