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Radio Music - To Sleep To
on 19 July 2012
Esperanza Spalding has certainly reaped the rewards due her undoubted talent, notably winning the 'Best New Artist' at the Grammys in 2011 and 'Jazz Artist Of The Year' at the Boston Music Awards, events which also served to introduce her to a wider music audience (reflected in the renewed interest in 'Chamber Music Society' (2010) and the earlier 'Esperanza' (2008) and 'Junjo' (2006)). 'Radio Music Society' is her fourth solo album, with a cover that that may be intended to suggest (or warn) potential listeners of an altogether different aesthetic, visually and sonically, than that heard previously on 'Chamber Music Society'. This impression may also have been reinforced by the choice of 'Black Gold' (Featuring Algebra Blessett and Lionel Loueke) as the first lead single. The question is, does the music match the expectation?
The disc opens with 'Radio Song', beginning with a soft vocal refrain accompanied by a solid electric bass, before opening up into a paen of love for the Radio, gracefully executed with lovely horn arrangments and notable saxophone work (Daniel Blake). This is, despite expectations, material familiar to Jazz and Soul fans, and arguably the meandering pace over-extends and exposes the essentially simple nature of the song. 'Cinammon Song' allows Spalding to showcase the beguiling quality to her voice, enveloping the listener over a gently unwinding groove that echoes the feel (though not the social or keenly articulated bite) of contemporary artists Erykah Badu and Jill Scott. 'Crowned & Kissed' is rooted in a groove (produced by Q-Tip) maintained by the piano's chugging chords, whilst 'Land Of The Free' features Spalding singinging accompanied omly by James Weidman's organ. This segues in to 'Black Gold', delivered in a typically assured manner. This offers one of the melodic highlights on the album, but the message of affirmation borders on the lyrically naive, and ultimately (replete with the Savannah Children's Choir) feels oddly manipulative. 'I Can't Help It' (featuring Gretchen Parlato on backing vocals) allows Spalding the opportunity to take a Stevie Wonder song and rework it anew, and it is delivered in a smooth and distinctly laid back manner, continued through the big band leanings of 'Hold On Me' and 'Vague Suspicions'. 'Endangered Species' is a cover of a Wayne Shorter song (for whom she has expressed her admiration publicly) and takes the album in to a different gear (a fusion of Jazz and Funk) with the magnificent voice of Lalah Hathaway, which counterpoints against Spalding's lighter tones. The album then returns to a slower pace with 'City Of Roses' and concludes with 'Smile Like That'.
So. Do you buy?
Fans of her previous work can relax as this certainly isn't an abandonment of her previous Jazz stylings, and as before her voice caresses with a light touch that can be seductive and playful, whilst also displaying a carefully considered control through the stylistic references to Jazz Fusion, Soul and Funk. The musicianship on display is unquestionably fine, the recording and production excellent, but ultimately there is a sense that for a lady born in 1984, a great deal is missing in the musical narrative that she constructs that can be heard in the music of artists working within the same tradition (Roy Hargrove, Robert Glasper, Christian Scott, Zara McFarlane, Ledisi, Gregory Porter et al), and in comparison this feels artfully inauthentic.
It would be foolish to question the fact of her talent, but the overall feel of this album is too constrained and uninspired, and one can only hope that future efforts will be more imaginative and wider ranging musically.