There are upsets and then there are upsets. When jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding was awarded the Grammy for best new artist last year in a field that included platinum-selling pop star competitors Justin Bieber and Drake, well, that was more of an earthquake than an upset.
Was it is a fluke or did the Grammys, a governing music enterprise that has long favored commercial visibility over artistic achievement, simply have enough of manufactured celebrities like Bieber?
In the end, we can only be thankful for the exposure the unexpected Grammy win brought, because with Radio Music Society, we now get to witness the fruits of that success. In this immensely enjoyable album, Spalding, 27, reflects a level of performance and compositional confidence suggesting that her new tunes were in stylistic place long before the Grammy upset. They move effortlessly from the largely acoustic framework that cemented the music on 2009's Chamber Music Society into more pop-centric, electric settings. But the overall sound — summery, fresh-faced R&B laced with strong undercurrents of jazz — is remarkably unchanged. In fact, Radio Music Society, despite several highlights, flows with a springlike grace and consistency.
In some ways, the album is a song cycle that shifts thematically but continually immerses itself in light soul-pop settings underscored by Fender Rhodes-style piano, the beautiful duality of Spalding's vocabularies on acoustic and electric bass and, of course, an immensely inviting vocal approach that glides over the songs with airy elegance.
The album's beautiful setup is Radio Song, a tune built around a wordless, almost childlike vocal melody before it blooms into bountiful jazz-pop sunshine. From there, the bright vibes ignite with Cinnamon Tree and City of Roses, songs packed with a soul sound that reflect worldly lyricism (both reference bop and Brazilian music without bowing completely to either) while Let Her flirts with leaner, after-hours funk and Steely Dan-like jazz-pop.
Several of Spalding's high-profile jazz and R&B pals offer assistance, although they discreetly blend into the arrangements. Joe Lovano (whose outstanding double-drummer quintet Us Five includes Spalding) offers golden tenor sax accompaniment for a smartly propulsive cover of the 1979 Stevie Wonder nugget I Can't Help It. Veteran drummer Jack DeJohnette anchors the breezy finale tune, Smile Like That.
More obvious are the vocal foils, including Algebra Blessett, who fortifies the joyous African heritage celebration Black Gold, and Lalah Hathaway, a dazzling soul-pop presence on a striking new arrangement of a forgotten 1990s fusion piece by Wayne Shorter, Endangered Species.
In short, Radio Music Society beams with music so smart and accessible that you forget where the jazz intellect stops and the sunny but genuine pop appeal begins.