Esperanza Spalding: “Radio Music Society”

I love something that Esperanza Spalding said not long ago. In an interview with NPR, she said, “The benefit of the radio is, something beyond your realm of knowledge can surprise you, can enter your realm of knowledge.” And isn’t that the truth?

It’s also a pretty fitting mission statement for Spalding’s own new album. A sequel in name only to her classical-leaning, front parlor-jazz concoction Chamber Music Society, the new one is a loving tribute to radio itself– thus, Radio Music Society. Give it a chance and this record will expand your moral and musical imagination.

To be fair, Spalding’s definition of radio music is probably a slightly-romanticized golden era of pop, one that seems to have a lot more to do with Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson than the more nakedly, vapidly carnal stuff that gets played today. There is, in fact, a Wonder-penned Jackson staple, “I Can’t Help It,” done here with a little help from jazz sax legend Joe Lovano. How’s that for world colliding? And it’s hardly the only example here of the jazz idiom blending seamlessly with the vocabulary of pop; it’s as though Spalding, Robert Glasper, and Nicholas Payton have all been drinking from the same watering hole.

I should note that Spalding’s record veers much closer to Bitches than it does to Black Radio, stepping over both the hip-hop inflections and deep jazz reserves that make Glasper’s album such a heavy hitter and instead favoring what is, despite the presence of Q-Tip as a producer, really a pure pop record; truly, she takes her cues from Michael and Stevie more than anyone else here.

But that’s not to say this record isn’t deeply in-the-pocket, or that it’s lacking in vision. Quite the contrary, in fact; this is a record that transitions, without so much as a pause or a falter, from the elegant sensuality of “Cinnamon Tree” into the social justice tale “Land of the Free”– and yes, the song’s title is delivered with more than a little irony as Spalding weaves a tale of injustice and wrongful imprisonment.

But what makes the record such a powerhouse, and such an endlessly charming piece of pop, is how these moods intermingle, and how they’re all given the same weight; how the brassy, soulful love song “Hold on Me” fits so perfectly beside “Black Gold,” an anthem of pride that sounds like it could have been one of the original Civil Rights anthems. Of course, it’s as timely today as ever. These songs show us different sides of Esperanza Spalding, and different sides of what music has been, and can be still. Spalding reclaims this music through rapturous song and story, and the end result is as sophisticated and immediate as anything she’s done.


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