‘Radio Music Society’ from Esperanza Spalding misses the mark

There is no doubt that Esperanza Spalding is riding a high. Last year she became the  first jazz musician to ever win the Grammy Award for Best New Artist (sorry, Justin Bieber). Her last album, Chamber Music Society, peaked at number one on the Billboard jazz charts.

So, her popularity is at an all-time high, and the Portland-raised bassist and vocalist seems ready to take her talents to the next level.

Hipsters that feel that you are supposed to like Esperanza Spalding and her music for no other reason than it is Esperanza Spalding and her music will disagree with me, but her new release, Radio Music Society (Concord Jazz, March 20,2012) doesn’t meet expectations.

Spalding assembles a variety of fantastic musicians to take part in Radio Music Society, including the likes of Joe Lovano, Leo Genovese, Terri Lyne Carrington, Jack DeJohnette,  Billy Hart, Jef Lee Johnson, Lionel Loueke, Algebra Blessett, Lalah Hathaway and Gretchen Parlato. Additionally, the album offers those who purchase it the ability to download music videos for each song.

Grooves lack depth

There was no shortage of hard work that went into this album. The compositions and arrangements are certainly creative and thoughtful, and Spalding reminds us that she is one hell of a bass player on both electric and acoustic.

But from the opening track, Radio Song, throughout the finish, I am left needing more. Songs like Radio Song and the Stevie Wonder tune I Can’t Help It are arranged to supply a deep groove, but the grooves that you want, that you could drive a car into, simply aren’t deep enough.

While I felt that in previous albums that Spalding’s voice was  presented like an instrument that was part of the group, here it most certainly takes the lead. And once again, there is no lack of effort or creativity when it comes to her singing. However this may be a case where too much effort and creativity could likely be the problem. The songwriting is average at best, but perhaps seemingly due to trying too hard.

Take out the vocals?

Complex is not always better, and one mistake that can easily be made is to think that the listener cares more about ability and complexity than the simple ability to understand what is being sung and if it sounds enjoyable or memorable. Spalding’s lyrics put to the Wayne Shorter song Endangered Species might be a good example of this.

I remember an established vocalist telling me that a truly talented vocalist best communicates the song they are singing by making the song personal and expressing that emotion through their voice. If the lyrics in the songs on Radio Music Society are personal to Spalding, that gets lost in translation to the listener. I would love to hear an all-instrumental album from Spalding, or at least something with minimal vocals where she can further explore her wonderful talents on the bass.

Following the Grammy win last year, and the minimal odds that a record company would agree to that, we likely wont see that any time soon.

6 comments on “‘Radio Music Society’ from Esperanza Spalding misses the mark

    1. Kevin Kniestedt

      John – Thank you for your opinion! I assume you are in the music industry as the album has yet to be released to the public, and for you to tell me I’m dead wrong would suggest that you already got your hands on a copy and listened to the whole thing multiple times over like I did.

      If you haven’t listened to it (again, since it has yet to be released), then I don’t really know where you are coming from.

      Either way, I needed something more from this album, and that was my opinion…and you are always welcome to yours!

  1. Jeff Smith

    The album title informs me that there is an agenda, and since most music on the radio has sucked for over 20 years, this album did meet my expectations. I didn’t expect the jazz album of the year, or that someone her age was going to pull off a Stevie Wonder meets Steely Dan masterpiece.

    I think when she has a few minutes to slow down and really listen to her instincts, we will be dealing with a major musical force. Until then, I believe this was meant to appeal to the widest audience possible, without being an artistic sellout.

  2. David

    I like her artistry, but she luhosd not have won the Grammy for best new artist. She didn’t put in the work for that award. I just think that wasn’t fair to the artists in that category that actually deserved that honor. I acknowledge that she is a good artist, but that award was not for her. But oh well..

  3. Happy1

    Went to see her last night in Nashville.
    It was one of the most boring concerts I ever attended.
    Her compositions (if one is kind enough to call them that) are pointless meanderings lacking sny substance whatsoever.
    Don’t get me wrong. She’s a great singer and a good upright Bassist. She looks nice on stage too.
    But she is woefully lacking in composition skills. She suffers from G.S.S. Girl Songwriter Syndrome.

    Being so young, she has plenty of time to evolve, but with all the hype, I doubt she will.

    1. Ron

      Esparanza,
      Traveled from Albuquerque New Mexico to Chicago with my wife to hear you at the City Winery. VERY VERY DISAPPOINTED. Your artistry was lost in your band that is much too big for your style. The music-until your encore–was disjointed. And your dialogue is just not spontaneous or “original” and just not what people come to your events to hear. Your voice, your base and a couple of good, complementary back-up artists are what highlight your talents. The “big band” and long dialogue are just not you. Please give us back the “real” Esperanza.

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