All eyes were on Esperanza Spalding at yesterday's (Feb. 23) NYC listening session of her album, "Radio Music Society," although the musician herself was not in attendance.
Projected over a large screen, a small group of writers were treated to 12 consecutive whimsical videos of Spalding, one for each of the songs on the album's deluxe version. A lavish concept thought of by Esperanza, herself, for her most anticipated album to date.
Ever since Spalding shocked the world with her Best New Artist win at last year's 53rd Annual Grammy Awards -- beating out more popular competition like Justin Bieber and Drake -- fans, and non-fans, have been waiting for "Radio Music Society" (March 20). Her fourth studio album was announced soon after her surprising win, thus at the time, the curious who never heard of Spalding only had her previous effort, "Chamber Music Society," to use as a measuring stick. If the heady, highbrow, classical-influenced project didn't impress, it certainly left Bieber and Drake fans wondering what made Spalding so special?
"Radio Music Society" is Spalding's answer to the skeptics, even if she doesn't intend it to be so. Nothing about this project feels like an attempt to cross over, but everything about it is undeniably more accessible than her former. As a bassist, she's one of jazz's brightest talents. As a singer, she can carry a note with the best of her peers. Both gifts are on full display, but it's Spalding's knack for songwriting that puts "Radio Music Society" in a category of it's own.
On "Crowned & Kissed," Spalding sings a fresh love song fit for the ballet or an after-hours lounge. "Cinnamon Tree" begins with a lullaby-like feel, but eventually comes into its own as something more romantic. It's with these songs, as well as the smoldering "Hold On Me," Spalding blends a bit of Tin Pan Alley songwriting tradition but with a much hipper attitude.
The album's first single "Black Gold" inverses this relationship between old and new. "Black Gold" is an inspirational black pride anthem, but unlike any hymnal or Civil Rights marching song you'll hear. Though it certainly pulls strands from those traditions, the song's trappings give it a neo-soul quality that's hard to deny. "Endangered Species" and "Let Her" blend influences of Weather Report and 80's Prince. The Stevie Wonder-penned, Michael Jackson song, "I Can't Help It," is given some jazz airs, unveiling a complexity many people may miss on the original.
"I Can't Help It" is one of the album's best examples of what "Radio Music Society" can do. Spalding is an 80's baby, born long after jazz music ruled the charts, and yet, here she is, a jazz musician who is part of the hip-hop generation, someone who is just as familiar with The Modern Jazz Quartet's Milt Jackson as she is Michael Jackson. On "Radio Music Society," Spalding is not pledging allegiance to pop music over jazz or vice versa, she is showing that the best of both styles is exemplified in creating memorable songs.