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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Spalding’s music also has interesting cultural implications. Ever since D’Angelo went nearly nude for one of neo-soul’s more memorable music videos, musicians within the industry and critics from without have pondered the split direction of music by African-American artists. On one side hand is popular rap and hip-hop—the roots of which are innovative and groundbreaking in their own right—and on the other, a more socially conscious, musically complex group of hip-hop, neo-soul musicians and artists of other stripes. Spalding falls comfortably into the second camp; several songs deal explicitly with race, with one even scrutinizing our desensitization to our own wars in the Middle East. She’s by no means the first to do this—The Roots’ recent album undun is a similarly fantastic fusion, as is the work of Common, Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli and countless others. But Radio Music Society‘s “Land of the Free,” for instance, lands an argument for civil rights with the same brilliant irony that made Stevie Wonder’s “Village Ghetto Land” such a biting critique—Spalding’s song trades Stevie’s baroque-melody tour of urban life for a soulful organ ballad, usually reserved for love songs, that instead recounts the wrongful conviction and false imprisonment of a black criminal. Both lyrically and stylistically, referencing musical tropes from as far back as the swing era as well as rhythmic ideas brought on by neo-soul, Spalding hits many of the touchstones of black culture in the modern era.
Again, Spalding does nothing unprecedented here; she is in good company, both contemporary and legendary, with musicians dealing in socially conscious themes. But she is one of the latest to carry that torch, and to do so is an interesting ambition for a musician trafficking in the pop music arena—where songs reflecting the vagaries of relationships and partying are dominating the “radio music society” to which her album’s title hints at aspiring. In an environment where suggestions of a “post-racial” America coexist with the story of a slain black teenager from Florida, Spalding’s work is one of the newest, if not the only, musical mirrors held up to society, and one to keep an eye on because of her prominence and her poignance as an artist.
It was easy to assume that with the rise of mash-ups, breakbeats and dustep, the listening space for organic, instrumental and technically demanding music would grow smaller and smaller. But whether as a controversial award recipient or a truly gifted musician, Spalding’s position in the pop sphere is an important indicator of how varied a taste the average listener may have. With Radio Music Society, she ensures that the head-bobbing synthesis of her influences and her education that can remain an infectiously musical combination. The fact that hearing it unearths a tribute to scores of jazz musicians and and issues of racial equality just gives us reason to listen closer to it.