Esperanza Spalding – Radio Music Society (Heads Up)

Perched on a boom-box, wearing an Afro that would make Sly Stone jealous, Esperanza Spalding’s image on the cover of her new album perfectly encapsulates the music found inside…1970s-era jazz/funk/soul, wrapped in a sexy, modern package.

This is Spalding’s first new release since becoming the first jazz musician to win the Grammy for “Best New Artist’ in 2011, simultaneously breaking the hearts of Justin Bieber fans around the world who thought their boy was a shoo-in.

I’m not sure what constitutes a new artist these days, as Radio Music Society is Spalding’s fourth album, a sort of companion piece to her 2010 effort, Chamber Music Society.

 In case you haven’t heard, Esperanza Spalding is a hugely-talented bass player, vocalist and songwriter. ThePortland,Oregonnative records here with her core band and esteemed guests such as drummer Jack DeJohnette, sax player Joe Lovano and vocalist Lalah Hathaway (daughter of Donny).

The set opens with the title track featuring Spalding’s rubbery electric bass and airy vocals. The 11-piece American Music Program horn section supports Spalding and her group, including pianist Leo Genovese, who turns in a playful solo.

The track sets the tone for the album…a mix of jazz, funk and soul, topped with Spalding’s vocals. Imagine Return To Forever fronted by Minnie Ripperton.

The track is typical of the album’s strengths and its weaknesses. The playing and arrangements are superb. I would love to hear more solos throughout the dozen tracks, but they are few and far between.

Instead, Spalding concentrates on her vocals. As a singer, she’s fine, though not particularly distinctive or inventive, but as a lyricist, she is weak.

As a result I found myself wishing that I could mute the vocals. This would have been a much better instrumental record. With that in mind the cover of Stevie Wonder’s I Can’t Help It and Wayne Shorter’s Endangered Species are highlights.

Having said that, there is still plenty to enjoy here and I’m sure that many listeners will appreciate Spalding’s verse. My feeling is that she’s dumbing-down her music to appeal to a broader audience, but that she has failed to come up with any strong melodies or hooks to justify the focus on vocals instead of the playing.

Even so, it’s great to have such a talented, young musician out there making challenging, thoughtful music.

Marty Duda

Click here to listen to I Can’t Help It from Radio Music Society