Fittingly, it all starts with a radio. The first notes of Esperanza Spalding’s album release tour aren’t notes at all—like a listener impatiently channel-searching, radio static gives way to her onstage horn section, as the big-band jazz musicians cop neo-soul grooves, a lounge-jazz verse, and snippets of be-bop and fusion separated by intermittent white noise. And then, the band settles on an unusual way to christen a solo artist’s album release; a pitch-perfect rendition of “Us,” a jazz standard from a 1970s big band with a legacy of its own.
But with a listen to the recently released Radio Music Society, played in its entirety during the currently-underway U.S. and international tour in support of the album, that schizophrenic introduction begins to make more sense. Musically, the album is excellent; a listen from beginning to end reads like a history lesson on the musical styles of the 20th century, but Spalding fuses them together in a way that makes the album feel comfortably modern. Her songs are also a technical feat; often her sultry jazz-singer vocals dovetail with the lines she plays on upright and electric bass, but they sound natural and intersect perfectly. But the most interesting takeaways from the album aren’t necessarily the songs themselves—it’s the statements they make, both commercially and culturally, about the state of music.
Spalding’s Grammy win—though fraught with legions of angry Beliebers prompting the the question “Who is Esperanza Spalding?”—apparently indicated the musical legitimacy of a classically trained performer. Let’s assume for a moment that, if not the exclusive domain of pop musicians, the “Best New Artist” category at least suggests an accessibility about an artist’s music that grabs fans outside their genre of choice. With Radio Music Society, Spalding leverages that Grammy allowance, creating a truly catchy and engaging album that’s still faithful to her background. Trained as a bassist and singer at the prestigious Berklee College of Music and hired as the school’s youngest professor there shortly thereafter, Spalding’s résumé is practically excessive in today’s music market. But the brilliant way she weaves between funky R&B and neo- soul singles, jazz ballads and even a breakneck Wayne Shorter cover, all of it natural and flowing rather than overly cerebral, showcase an impressive knowledge of her forebears and a surprising level of musicianship as a bassist. It’s evidence of the power of a strong musical vocabulary in an era where producers with laptops and samples can rise to music’s greatest heights. There are merits to both kinds of art, but in an industry where substance is not always a requirement for popular recognition, it’s refreshing to know that there is still a place for a meatier kind of music.
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