By Nekesa Mumbi Moody / AP
If you didn’t know much about Esperanza Spalding — and many people didn’t before her surprise Grammy win last year — you might be inclined to think that her latest album, “Radio Music Society,” is the jazz artist’s attempt to cross over into the mainstream music world.
There certainly are several elements of the record that could lead to such a conclusion. It’s her most accessible album, with R&B friendly grooves and production credits from rapper Q-Tip. It even features a cover of a Michael Jackson groove from “Off the Wall.”
But if you know Esperanza like renowned jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette, a frequent collaborator and a guest on “Radio Music Society,” you will know that the bassist, songwriter, singer and producer never strays far from her jazz roots, and is not one to alter her sound so it fits neatly into any format — and certainly doesn’t do it for her most high-profile album to date.
“It has jazz in it, but it’s beyond that. I think it sends the message, not only in jazz but in pop, that you can do more with it in terms of the level of music and the artistry and what they might call ‘taking risks,'” said DeJohnette. “Hopefully this ‘Radio Music Society’ CD will inspire musicians, not only in jazz but in other genres, to open up and expand. … I think we all have that same sensibility, that jazz music can go a lot of places and cover a lot of bases and still hold that.”
It’s what Spalding had in mind when she crafted the album.
“I actually think the music is served — not just my music but even the music that I consider myself a member of, a community member of jazz music — (it) can actually be served by all of the — what would you call it? Spotlight,” she said in a recent interview.
“Radio Music Society” is Spalding’s fourth album and represents another highlight in a career that has reached apex after apex. The Portland, Oregon, multi-instrumentalist became the youngest instructor at the celebrated Berklee College when she was just 20 years old; she released her first album in 2006. Soon, she would be singing for the likes of President Barack Obama and playing with artists like Prince.
So she was certainly no stranger to success when she was nominated along with artists such as Justin Bieber and Drake for best new artist at the 2011 Grammys. But her win in the category, a first for a jazz act, sent shock waves through the music industry and catapulted Spalding into the pop sphere.
Soon, she wasn’t just sought by publications like Jazziz, but also by People and Vogue. Earlier this year, the Academy Awards tapped her to sing “What a Wonderful World” for a tribute to departed film greats, giving the petite Spalding (and her massive signature Afro) yet another major platform and career pinnacle.
“When she had the Oscar shot this year as well, again it just showed her in a different light where she kind of embraced a standard tune and made it her own,” said Mark Wexler, head of her record label, Heads Up International. “That certainly was just another shot in the arm for us but also for her and letting people know who she is.”
Yet the 27-year-old insists that little has changed since her Grammy upset made her the music industry’s It girl.
“Sorry it’s not exciting,” said Spalding a bit sheepishly when asked about her life these days.
“In the public arena, I suppose more people know about me. That’s a big change, which means, you know, publications, or shows or radio shows, they’re interested now in talking with me, which is great, because hopefully that means we’ll get more gigs,” she said of her band.
There’s also a chance she might get airplay on stations outside of the jazz genre. BET took the unusual step of premiering the video for her first single, “Black Gold,” about instilling black boys with pride in their African roots. That put her amid a rotation that usually includes acts like Rihanna and J. Cole.
While Spalding’s excited about the possibilities of new audiences embracing her music, the bassist said the album wasn’t a calculated ploy for airplay or fans. Instead, it grew out of her work on “Chamber Music Society,” which fused jazz sensibilities with classical. As she was coming up with themes for that album, she was working on other music that she knew wouldn’t fit and would work better as a companion project.
“I thought, ‘Now that would be a fun way and a very interesting way to sort of divvy up the music, if it was two halves of a piece,'” she said.
Among the jazz artists included on “Radio” are DeJohnette, saxophonist Joe Lovano, guitarist Lionel Loueke and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, the recent Grammy winner with whom Spalding recently performed as part of a group. The album was already in the works before Spalding’s Grammy win but really developed over the past year.
“Radio” was produced and arranged by Spalding, with a production assist from Q-Tip, and she wrote every track but the album’s two cover songs. It also comes accompanied by 11 videos that flow seamlessly like a film, including images of her falling in love with another woman, a gay man and referencing the horrors of war.
“Esperanza is the one who dictates what she wants to do, and because we believe in her so much, that’s exactly how it goes down. It’s one of those things where here, creativity trumps everything else,” said Wexler. “There’s no doubt that we’re looking at this album, ‘Radio Music Society,’ as an opportunity to make as many people aware of this creative being as possible … (but) that doesn’t change her approach at all, and that’s the thing that you have to admire.”
It also means there’s little chance of Spalding becoming yet another act whose artistry is diluted in the pursuit of pop stardom, because that’s not what she’s after.
“My name, my face — I am the representative of this work, this art that I am pursuing. So when I’m invited into these realms that typically aren’t made available to jazz musicians, I’m there as just that, a representative of my work, and nothing more, and nothing less really,” she said.