Quite a few faces in the audience held disappointed expressions when Justin Bieber didn’t take home the Best New Artist Grammy last year.
Hailing from Portland, Oregon, jazz singer Esperanza Spalding was obviously shocked when her name was called. The unexpected win launched her presence in the music industry, attracting attention from all over the world. Spalding’s strange mix of honeyed, little-girl vocals paired with masterful, underlying bass rhythms had a distinctly unique appeal. Her voice appeared to have an epic split personality, paying tribute to the lost value of classical training.
“Radio Music Society,” her long-awaited follow-up to “Chamber Music Society” will be released March 20.
It’s a continuation of where she left off in 2010, when Spalding mentioned that she had originally intended to create a double album, but ran out of time. “One disc with a subtle exploration of chamber works,” she said, “and a second one in which melodies are formatted more along the lines of what we would categorize as ‘pop songs.’”
The new album delivers everything Spalding had in mind when she spoke of it back in 2010—and more. The gentler melodies of her earlier work would have been drowned out by the themes and power of “Radio Music Society,” which focus on her heritage and what it means to be black—both now and what she imagines it would have been like in pre-colonial Africa.
“Black pride didn’t just start with the slave trade,” she said, commenting on what may well be the best track on the record, titled “Black Gold.” The song, like the rest of the album, is loaded with heavy brass lines and unexpected guitar cameos, bringing to light the stronger, edgier side of Spalding’s character and ability. She sings out against society’s tendency to equalize the importance of world tragedies to that of celebrity gossip in “Vague Suspicions.” Afterwards, she launches into “Land of the Free,” a song about a man who served 30 years time for a crime he did not commit.
Whereas Spalding’s backup was once just an upright bass, she now seems fueled by the full jazz orchestra that accompanies her, confidently declaring who she is and what she believes. The majority of the album is an energizing experience. She does little to censor her opinions, powerfully skating over goose-bump-worthy instrumental harmonies. The last few tracks finish up with a few forgettable love songs, as she wraps her big breakthrough to a quiet end. Luckily for Spalding, the initial thrill from the first few songs masks the mediocre finish, leaving the listener with the warm feeling of having overcome many of the obstacles in her songs.
While she is still a relatively new face in the jazz world, the album will assuredly take her one step closer to becoming an important player in the development of new age jazz and soul.