Are you one of those people who got really upset last year when Esperanza Spalding beat out Justin Bieber for the Best New Artist Grammy? If so, you need to slap yourself across the face–hard. Again. That’s better. If homegirl’sChamber Music Society wasn’t the splashiest release, it nonetheless unveiled some serious talent – enough talent, in fact, that the oft-maligned term “contemporary jazz” could even be seen to connote progress for once, instead of bringing to mind a dentist’s waiting room. Although Spalding had already released an album in 2008 (nobody said the Grammys were perfect), it was CMS that critically boosted her career. With her new companion LP, Radio Music Society, the young virtuoso branches out sonically, injecting her jazz roots with some modern soul and pop juice, maybe even inspiring the Bieber faithful to check in on what all the fuss is about.
The title-track sets things off in fine fusion fashion – drums and (Esperanza’s own) funk-laden bass forward; horns and piano swirling peripherally; all bound by upbeat, seraphic vocals a la Jazzyfatnastees. “Let Her,” and the inspirational lead single, “Black Gold”–both standouts–follow suit nicely. Beyond the more obvious, catchy tunes, Spalding seems as equally capable of getting sultry with it (“Cinnamon Tree,” “I Can’t Help It”) as she does dropping political innuendo (“Land of the Free,” “Vague Suspicions”). While the former may be the more rewarding lane for many listeners, both angles mostly work in the end because her voice is so damn lovely. And I guess this couldn’t be classified as a jazz record without a jazz cover; Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species” gets the neo treatment on what’s likely to be the most polarizing track on Radio Music Society. At just 11 tracks, this record flexes serious range, but what’s even more impressive is that it rarely sounds overextended.
– Jeff Artist