Esperanza Spalding Can’t Save Jazz (and shouldn’t be expected to).

If Spalding is supposed to save jazz, then jazz is in a lot of trouble.

When you’ve been invited to perform for the President of the United States, turned heads as the bass-playing beauty in the Academy Awards house band, toured with Prince and beat out teen dream Justin Bieber for the Grammy Award for Best New Artist, you’re having a very good run in the spotlight—and it could turn your head.

From time-to-time an artist gets dubbed as the new savior of jazz. Usually this title is handed out by publications with only a cursory interest in jazz. It’s possible Spalding neither sought nor seeks the responsibility, but with success comes expectation and the expectation is that Radio Music Society, Spalding’s fourth album and her first since her Grammy upset, will be popular in a way few jazz albums have, at least since since guitarist George Benson and saxophonist Kenny G were at their commercial peaks.

The problem with Radio Music Society is it’s only okay as jazz and is tentative as pop music. Spalding is a musician, songwriter, lyricist, arranger and producer and while she does all of this adequately, she does none of it spectacularly.

Everything that has ever been wrong with Spalding is still wrong on Radio Music Society. She’s competent on bass without being exceptional. Her voice is thin and her range limited. The earnestness of her lyrics is overcome by the lumpiness in the delivery. For an album polished and created with maximum airplay in mind, Radio Music Society is noticeably missing a key component of successful pop music: a killer hook. There are multiple vocalists, a choir, a huge horn section, strings, drummers and rappers all over this sprawling record, yet Spalding’s arrangements are sparse and lacking in energy.

“I Can’t Help It,” a Stevie Wonder composition that was performed by Michael Jackson and produced by Quincy Jones for Jackson’s Off the Wall (Epic, 1979,) was then a sweet and soulful little slice of pop heaven livened by Jackson’s energy and affinity for the material. By contrast, Spalding just plows through with an indifferent interpretation that squanders a tenor saxophone solo by Joe Lovano.

Much more successful is “Black Gold,” the stand-out which is an ode to black youth remaining positive in the face of criticism and skepticism. It features an effective duet between Spalding and Algebra Blessett’s stronger vocal abilities. Despite a meandering conclusion, it’s a pretty lead-off single that will doubtlessly play well with younger listeners attuned to Spalding’s neo-soul stylings. “Cinnamon Tree” benefits from Olivia DePrato and Jody Rednage on violin and cello respectively and a soaring guitar solo from Jef Lee Johnson.

Those that bother reading liner notes will notice the familiar names of veterans such as Lovano, Terri Lyne Carrington, Billy Hart and Jack De Johnette as well as vocal contributions from Lalah Hathaway and Leni Stern and assume there will be enough serious jazz to offset the pop aspirations. They may be taken aback once they hear the clunky and heavy-handed environmental message in the lyrics Spalding penned for Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species.”

Radio Music Society is Spalding’s first all vocals/no instrumentals record and was conceived with maximum airplay in mind as the first track, “Radio Song,” practically declares. For those digging on Spalding’s girlish but limited range, they know exactly what to expect; but clocking in at over six minutes in length, wafer-thin vocals, knotty shifts in tone, and lacking a chorus to sing along with, “Radio Song” isn’t likely to give Adele anything to worry about when it comes to airplay supremacy.

Two years after its release, Chamber Music Society (Telarc, 2010) was still riding high as the sixth best-selling album on Billboard’s 2011 jazz chart and there is no reason to think the more overtly commercial Radio Music Society won’t perform even better. Despite the fact that it’s unfocused, messy and seems to go on longer than its nearly hour long playing time, this will easily be the biggest jazz album of 2012 (which is absolutely not the same as saying it is the best jazz album of 2012).

The deluxe edition includes a DVD with 11 videos (only “Endangered Species” doesn’t receive one). It’s a mixed bag because the songs that don’t really work on the CD, like “Vague Suspicions,” don’t work any better because there’s a visual to go along with the audio. Spalding is pretty, but she’s not a convincing actress and some of the story ideas are corny, embarrassing or both. The DVD includes bonus material including a 16-minute “making of” the videos.

Radio Music Society aims high and when it succeeds it achieves its ambitious, audacious agenda. A lot of this hinges on Spalding’s big goals, big talent and big hair. She is till a work in progress and even when her ambitions exceed her accomplishments Spalding is still one of the most interesting artists working today. It remains to be seen if she’s really “the One” or the latest in a long list of would-be jazz “saviors.”

Not that jazz necessarily needs one.   All the genre needs is exposure, airplay and some respect.  Jazz has had supposed saviors before.  Kenny G.’s snooze saxophone and Wynton Marsalis’ straight ahead approach taking jazz back to the roots were both hailed as “gateway artists” whose success would surely draw new listeners to jazz.  Has it really worked out that way?  It’s possible, but it doesn’t seem like its worked out that way. 

This review originally appeared at All About Jazz.com

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5 responses

  1. Whilst she’s very far from being any kind of savior, being young and pretty makes her relatable to an audience that might not usually connect with the kind of music she makes. Does jazz even need saving? If it does, maybe being diluted and mainstreamed is exactly what it needs to be ‘saved’.

    1. I agree with you that youth and looks will help make Esperanza Spalding “relatable” to audiences that usually ignore jazz artists. My point is I doubt Radio Music Society will do much if anything to make jazz any more relatable to those audiences. Are they going to rush out and start buying Charles Mingus or Thelonious Monk albums? Will they even listen to last year’s Grammy winner from Terri Lyne Carrington who plays on Spalding’s album? Nah. This will be their only “jazz” album of the year and they’ll go back to Drake or someone else. Through no fault of her own, the biggest and probably only beneficiary of Esperanza Spalding’s popularity is Esperanza Spalding.

  2. Seriously?
    What album has this guy been listening to?

    1. If you liked it, obviously not the one you’ve been listening to.

  3. Thnak you, Jeff. I’m a jazz vocalist and feel like (in musican circles) I have to hide the fact that I find her music entirely uninspiring. Nice, yes. Solid musicianship, yes? But, interesting? No. I’d rather listen to the more complicated but less accessible Gretchen Parlato or to Jane Monheit, who actually has a killer instrument. Now, if we could combine Parlato’s lyrical and rhythmic sensitivity, Monheit’s instrument, Betty Carter’s chops and attitdue, with Nina Simone’s storytelling…THEN we might be talking about the savior of jazz. Frankly, I like to hear singer with pipes and enough life experience to tell the world something. Jazz isn’t pop music for a reason.

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