In the scant four years since Esperanza Spalding issued her breakthrough second album on Heads Up International, the 27-year-old has enjoyed a spotlight rare for even the most seasoned jazz artists. She performed on Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel Live!; was the subject of a New Yorker profile; and won a spot in The Oprah Magazine’s “Women on the Rise.” Her lithesome figure graced Banana Republic ads and the pages of Vogue, and President Obama asked her to perform at his Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.
Then came Chamber Music Society, Spalding’s second Heads Up project. Inspired by Spalding’s early classical training, the charming collection was no doubt crucial to her success at the 2011 Grammys, where she became the first jazz musician awarded Best New Artist, beating out tween idol Justin Bieber and dreamy rapper Drake. The disc helped to establish a fuller picture of her range, especially in conjunction with her new album, Radio Music Society. The album titles alone suggest a contrasting output: meticulous compositions experienced in an intimate setting by those with well-groomed musical knowledge, versus catchy tunes, democratically available to the masses.
Imagined as a mainstream crossover effort that might help loosen jazz from its niche status, RMS places dyed-in-the-wool jazz musicians (including Joe Lovano, Jack DeJohnette and Billy Hart) behind easily digested electric-pop songs, including Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It.” Though cloying at times, Spalding’s groove-based tunes display a new social conscience; her frequent scatting is replaced by lyrics that, for example, urge African-American kids to learn about their heritage. RMS is different…and definitely worth listening to.—Nina Stoller-Lindsey