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Esperanza Spalding: Radio Music Scoiety

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Let the wailing and hand-wringing begin. The phenomenal young jazz bassist/singer/arranger/producer, who scored an upset victory over Justin Bieber in taking the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 2011, now has a follow-up to the CD that cemented her stature, Chamber Music Society. This year’s Society is unabashedly commercial. The small combo feel that brought her here is gone, instrumentation is noticeably more electronic (including her fine bass solos), and lyrics are all-English instead of the previous linguistic paella. Not only is Spalding perched atop a high-octane boombox on this album cover, Concord Music readily told us that there will be videos for all 12 tracks on the new release.

Be forewarned: It will be nearly impossible to escape the chart-topping sounds of the catchiest cuts-“Cinnamon Tree,” “Black Gold” and Spalding’s bouquet to her hometown of Portland, Ore., “City of Roses.” Once the hooks of these songs grab your eardrums, they will be difficult to dislodge. But a careful listen soon discloses that these 10 Spalding originals, plus covers of tunes by Stevie Wonder and Wayne Shorter, are anything but pop pap. Spalding’s latest vocal and horn arrangements have the polish of the finest gems by the Manhattan Transfer, Chicago or Steely Dan, and her song structures, alternating discursive sections with refrains, have a Michael Franks solidity beneath their spontaneity.

All-star cameos include Joe Lovano blowing on Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It,” Jack DeJohnette setting the groove for “Let Her” and Lionel Loueke applying his special scatting atop a silky guitar solo on “Black Gold.” More often, Chamber Music alums Leo Genovese on keyboards and Ricardo Vogt on guitar are at the forefront to fine effect. American Music Program, a 13-piece horn ensemble, appears on three cuts, including “Hold on Me,” Spalding’s bluesiest song, but it’s the Savannah Children’s Choir that lifts “Black Gold” and gives it true anthemic power before it memorably subsides into lullaby tenderness with Spalding’s vocal coda. You can easily imagine the video scenario for that track.

Opening the set, “Radio Song” is Spalding’s most impressive composition, while “Smile Like That,” closing things out, may be her strongest vocal performance. It’s only when Spalding veers into public issues for the first time that her lack of seasoning shows. “Land of the Free” pales as a protest song when compared with Dylan’s wrath on a similar subject in “Hurricane,” and “Endangered Species,” with its coolness and obliquity, never attains the solemnity of Paul Simon’s “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night” as an antiwar statement. Both do have their moments, demonstrating that if Spalding wishes to straddle the realms of jazz, classical and pop, her talent has ample range.

Originally Published