Radio Music Society, the upcoming album from last year’s winner of the Grammy Award for Best New Artist, jazz vocalist, bassist, and composer Esperanza Spalding is intended not as a sequel to her 2010 Chamber Music Society but as a “companion.” The artist explains:
Originally I thought it would be fun to release a double album. One disc with an intimate, subtle exploration of chamber works and a second one in which jazz musicians explore song forms and melodies that are formatted more along the lines of what we would categorize as “pop songs.” Those are the two things that really interest me, and it intrigues me to think about different presentation approaches while writing each kind of song.
Radio Music Society is intended as an application of jazz sensibility to pop ideas.
In “Radio Song,” which opens the album, she describes what it’s like to be riding along in a car, turning on the radio and coming across a snippet of a song that you’ve never heard before, Yet it immediately touches something almost mystical in you. It points, she explains, to the power of music to create an intimate connection between the artist and the listener, the power to create a “magical moment.” Formally, the song itself does the thing it describes, as it captures that moment as the radio is turned on and the DJ sends “sweet salvation” with a song that speaks to you. It is a powerful introduction to a powerful album.
Music is an emotional experience–too much intellectualizing can kill it. An older poet once said: “We murder to dissect.” Spalding puts it her own way: “Art doesn’t thrive with too much analyzing and explaining. The idea of ‘radio music’ is very broad.”
Very broad indeed: of the dozen tracks on the album, ten of which are Spalding originals, variety is the key. “Cinnamon Tree” is a gentle celebration of friendship, while “Land of the Free” is a dramatic social commentary on the problem of false imprisonment. “Black Gold” could pass for an anthem on Black pride and the African American ancestry, while “Hold on Me” is an old style bluesy unrequited love song with a contemporary twist or two. “Vague Suspicions” takes a keening look at how we deal with the horrors of modern wars, while “City of Roses” is a brightly energetic tribute to her hometown, Portland, Oregon (” a little piece of heaven”).
Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It” and Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species” with original Spalding lyrics are the two cover tracks on the album. Spalding credits Joe Lovano, who plays on the track with the insight that when you’re playing a classic you need to put your own stamp on it. The key to her interpretation, she says, is “a dance between subtlety and effervescent eagerness.” Gretchen Parlato, Becca Stevens, and Justin Brown join her on the vocals. Pianist Leo Genovese had originally suggested playing the Shorter composition live, and they had been “saturated for years exploring” the tune before she wrote the lyrics. Proceeds from the song will go to a conservation association (just as proceeds from “Land of the Free” will go to the Innocence Project).
Joining Spalding on various tracks besides Lovano, Genovese and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington are Jack DeJohnette, Billy Hart, Jef Lee Johnson and Lionel Loueke. Portland mentor Janice Scroggins plays piano on “Hold on Me” and the horn section of the American Music Program, a youth band directed by Dr. Thara Memory, is featured on four tracks. Other vocalists include Algebra Blessett, Lalah Hathaway, Leni Stern and hip-hop artist, Q-Tip.