Esperanza Spalding’s “Society”

Charmed agenda
By JON GARELICK  |  April 18, 2012

SOCIAL CONTRACT Spalding creates pop with a jazz musician's taste for detail and individual voices.

The first time I was knocked out by Esperanza Spalding, she wasn't even playing — she was talking. It was a public meeting of the Boston chapter of the Jazz Journalists Association at Scullers. Spalding — then a Berklee student star — came in a little late, bass in tow, wearing blue denim, a red scarf and red sneakers, and, afro bobbing, joined the panel on stage and started to talk.

I can't even remember now what she said. Being a JJA meeting, we were probably in a hand-wringing session about the fate of jazz and live performance in Boston. But Spalding changed the temperature in the room. Self-possessed and self-deprecating, she had a sense of humor and an aura like a cool breeze. Her vibe floated over the room of jazz-nerd angst as if to say, "Chill."

That was then. Before her triumphs at the Newport Jazz Festival, before her stunning Grammy upset over Justin Bieber as Best New Artist, before her recent show-stopping performance on the Oscar telecast, and before her new CD, Radio Music Society (Heads Up) debuted at #10 on the album chart.

Spalding has been presenting the new album as the natural sequel to its predecessor, the Grammy-winning Chamber Music Society. That disc emphasized the 27-year-old bassist, singer, and composer's contrapuntal writing for an ensemble that included string quartet. The new one, as the name implies, indicates her more explicit desire to take on pop.

In fact, I don't see this album as all that different conceptually from Chamber Music Society, or even her Heads Up debut, 2008's Esperanza. On all of her albums, Spalding upholds her commitment to jazz, but also to a kind of vocal pop music that's all her own.

And part of what's fascinating about the new album — and makes it hold up on repeated listenings, and even get better — is the cohesiveness of her diverse approach. She has at least three songs on the disc that have crossover potential — the opener "Radio Song," the love ode "Cinnamon Tree," and the affirmation for young African-American men, "Black Gold."

Each of these songs is hooky, and in fact "Radio Song" has three hooks (now required, we're told by the radio pros). But what refreshes your ear on each listen is the detail — the imaginative basslines, of course, the mix of various Afro-Latin and Brazilian beats, and even some jazz swing, but also the musical shifts from hook to hook. On "Black Gold," you get that satisfying major-third drop in the two syllables of the title, a move from gospel to popping funk, a syllable-stuffed verse of overlapping vocals, backed by horns and organ fills, a dancing solo by the Benin guitarist Lionel Loueke, and a rousing children's gospel-chorus outro.

The album is rich in such details, and in telling guest appearances by the likes of Loueke, the brilliant young saxophonist Dan Blake, and by Spalding's sometime boss, Joe Lovano.

Spalding's dominant mode is a kind of sunny embrace of life — even when she's sad. At time, her lyrics risk sentimentality, as in the intentionally sweet "Cinnamon Tree." But I had that initial reaction to her setting of William Blake on the last album, "Little Fly," and damned if it wasn't the tune I kept humming in my head.

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