Now Esperanza Spalding is making even the Grammys look hip. In her first outing since she was named Best New Artist in 2011, Spalding puts a dozen tunes into her stylistic spin cycle for a tour de force of pop glitter, jazz swing, folk moodiness and a dollop of hip-hop swagger on the dense-but-dazzling Radio Music Society. This is the work of an artist who refuses to choose, mocking genre labels with guileless ambition. (Her original concept was to pair this disc with the classically-oriented, string-laden Chamber Music Society back in 2010, until her record company convinced her the menu would be too large for public consumption.)
By ignoring boundaries, Spalding upends expectations. She enlists august jazz tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano to provide a dulcet lilt to a Stevie Wonder cover (“I Can’t Help It”) and hip-hop titan Q-Tip to play glockenspiel and co-produce the jazzy tribute to her native Portland, Oregon(“City of Roses”). Assembling a phalanx of 23 players and vocalists for a flashy, powerhouse “Radio Song,” she sings about the giddiness of being seized by a new jam coming out of the speakers as her own electric bass wends its way through the song’s buoyant center. Three songs later, with just the sparse backing of organist James Weidman, she tells the saga of a man falsely imprisoned for 30 years on a bogus murder conviction. On Radio, both extremes are fair game.
As was the case with Chamber Music Society, Spalding’s vocals are her ace in the hole. Her range is limited, but her assured and agile phrasing is ideal for carrying out her talk/sung approach. It enables her to credibly pull off a bluesy, big-band-like torch song (“Hold On Me”) and to surf atop a youth choir on the anthem “Black Gold.” And then there’s “Vague Suspicions,” a dense and sophisticated number with Jack DeJohnette on drums, about the tacit accommodations Americans make to avoid thinking too much about the consequences of drone strikes and the other elements of remote-control war. It’s a grim, simmering number, its closing moments featuring Spalding sarcastically cooing, “Next on channel 4: celebrity gossip.” It’s a typically astute and self-aware take from an artist who is the closest thing jazz has to a young celebrity.