Esperanza Spalding comes into this already boasting an impressive resume: flinty jazz bassist, carmel-voiced chanteuse, Grammy sensation. With Radio Music Society, she clearly hopes to add another line: Pop star.
Far more accessible than 2010′s somewhat stuffy flipside release Chamber Music Society, this new effort stirs elements of neo-soul (the lead single, “Black Gold”), Tin Pan Alley (“Hold On Me”), hip hop (“Crowned & Kissed”) and Top 40 glitter (“Let Her”) into a mix that already features the swinging presence of Terri Lyne Carrington, Jack DeJohnette and Joe Lovano. Despite that best new artist Grammy (all apologies, again, to the Beliebers), this is actually the fourth long-player from a fully formed 27-year-old voice, and it plays like that — with no small amount of attitude and style.
Of course, the question quickly becomes … is it jazz? Probably not, at least not in the strictest, old-school sense of the word. The album — which, after all, features this intriguingly explored version of “I Can’t Help It,” a Stevie Wonder-penned song famously done by Michael Jackson — is too desirous of mainstream success to pin itself down to something so angular and (unfortunately) effete. At the same time, though, there’s a lovely take on Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species,” from his unjustly overlooked 1980s period. In fact, for every stirring turn by Billy Hart (that’s a jazz guy, kids), there’s an equally compelling contribution by someone like Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest (that’s a hip hop guy, oldsters).
I suppose the idea on Radio Music Society, due March 20 through Heads Up International/Concord Music Group, is to provide a gateway into jazz, a non-threatening opportunity for someone who has never purchased — maybe, would never purchase — a recording by, say, Lovano to experience his work and perhaps be moved to dig a little deeper. In that regard, it succeeds. There certainly is a listenability about Radio Music Society.
Which almost, almost, makes you forget how infuriating it is to hear someone with so very much talent and charisma play it so very safe. In that way, Radio Music Society is, actually, quite similar to its predecessor — a record I wanted to like, because Esperanza Spalding is so deeply likable, more than I ever could. She’s a child of the 1980s, and she often plays down to that era’s worst musical impulses: looking cool, but not necessarily matching that look with an attendant gumption.
What we’re left with is an album that’s likely not serious enough to connect with jazz fans, and probably not propulsive enough to attract a pop audience. The project needs less alchemy, and more focus.
Then again, maybe I’m overthinking it. After all, Radio Music Society opens with a deliriously enthralling moment of lip-smacking sweetness, as Spalding daydreams about that magic moment when a song earworms its way into your subconscious: “Now, you can’t help singing along, even though you’ve never heard it. … This song will keep you grooving.”
That, she does. That she definitely does, even if I keep thinking that she could be doing so very much more.