Before really getting into the meat of my review of Esperanza Spalding’s “Radio Music Society“, I think a word or two is needed about Esperanza’s budding role as an ambassador for ‘jazz’. When she won the grammy for best new artist, beating out inexplicable pop sensation Justin Bieber no less, it raised hopes among jazz commentators that jazz would gain a wider audience. In some ways, it was a strange hope for traditionally minded commentators to harbor, for, despite her association with Joe Lovano in the ‘Us Five’ band (which is excellent), only in the loosest conceivable sense of the word can her solo music be described as ‘jazz’. Esperanza represents something of a tension within the jazz community. The message seems to be that jazz can be relevant in the contemporary context, and even popular, but just not the jazz we’ve been used to.
If this sounds a bit harsh, it shouldn’t. I’m pretty sure Esperanza Spalding is the love of my life, and this album is really spectacular. Pre-release, I was skeptical about it on concept, as self-conscious blends of musical styles, particularly those aimed at a broader audience, tend to be just that: self-conscious. Jazz homage to the popular radio hit is a concept that flirts with disastrous execution. Spalding pulls it off with ease and aplomb though. The songs are somehow both easy and engaging melodically while being simultaneously involved and personal. This is music that works on every level: you could sit and analyze the counterpoint or you could turn it up and dance with equal ease. That’s no mean feet. For the way it pulls together the intellectual and dance strains of the tradition and delivers what is both an artistic statement and a really engaging pop album it is an easy front runner so far for jazz album of 2012. And, as I’ve said, it’s barely jazz.
Well, to be fair, it’s significantly closer to being a jazz album than Robert Glasper’s was. On initial listen, numerous improvised solos were immediately apparent. On top of that, one of the songs is actually a Wayne Shorter tune in disguise. Wayne’s “Endangered Species” get’s a radio hit makeover with Spalding’s supplied lyrics, but Wayne’s clearly in there somewhere. Her own compositions could easily owe something to Shorter’s composerly grace. Just listen to the counterpoint between Esperanza’s voice and bassline in one of my favorites from the album, “Crowned and Kissed”:
It’s nuanced and syncopated and yet undeniably funky. Utterly compelling. And she is producing both those melodies herself at the same time. So, impressive as well as compelling. Almost every song has at least one such utterly compelling moment. The modulation towards the end of “Black Gold”, or the fuzzed guitar interludes on “Smile Like That”. Speaking of Joe Lovano, he makes a notable guest appearance on the Michael Jackson cover “I can’t help it”. And while we’re on the subject of the band, it’s great. A whole host of musicians pitched in; the personelle changes from song to song, but on every track it’s great.
This is a rare album. It works on every level and, quite frankly, if I ever heard music like this on the radio, I would actually listen to the radio more often. It goes without saying that, jazz or no, I would love to see more music like this out there. That having been said, I want to move away from the label of Esperanza as one of this generation of ‘saviors of jazz’. What Esperanza has done here is undeniably compelling but not exactly the ‘jazz’ that we’re talking about here. One could simply compare “Radio Music Society” with Joe Lovano’s “Us Five” band. Spalding has real chops on display in both settings, but the products read very differently. Lovano reads like a piece of post-bop and while he can groove with the best of them and often does, I think the intellectual currents of the Us Five band are what are really on display. “Radio Music Society” doesn’t need to be interacted with in quite the same way; it works equally well as an album of dance music. That lends “Radio Music Society” a deceptive level of accessibility. That is “Radio Music Society”‘s great strength, but also the reason I think that any of these conversations about the “future of jazz” should look elsewhere.