Sunday, March 25, 2012

Music Review: Esperanza Spalding's Radio Music Society

Earlier this week, Esperanza Spalding's new CD, the Radio Music Society, was released. I downloaded Radio Music Society on my Blackberry, and purchased the deluxe edition which includes a DVD with videos for all the songs.

Esperanza has succeeded in her stated goal for this CD: to present improvised jazz-based music in an accessible, radio-friendly format. The music on this CD has a cool R&B/Soul sound, but is still a jazz CD. On this record, as on her last one, the full scope of her talents as a vocalist, songwriter, arranger, and bassist are on display.

All of the songs stick in the brain right away. Radio Song, Endangered Species, Black Gold, Cinnamon Tree, are all very catchy. Esperanza sings on all the songs. Her voice has always been very pleasing to my ears. Her performance recently of What a Wonderful World at the Oscar Ceremonies a few weeks ago is proof positive that Esperanza is a talented vocalist.
She either wrote or co-wrote all the songs except for two covers, Stevie Wonder's I Can't Help It (featuring one of Esperanza's mentors, Joe Lovano), and Wayne Shorter's Endangered Species.

I still enjoy Esperanza's version Austin City Limits version of Endangered Species over the new version on the CD, but we still have Esperanza's meaty bass work on her Jaco Pastorius Fretless Jazz bass on the track. Esperanza wrote new lyrics for the Wayne Shorter composition, and the added lyrics are really the only difference in the two versions of the song. She is joined by Lalah Hathaway on vocals. I love Esperanza's bass playing on Endangered Species.

Some have lamented the lack of a flashy bass solo on the CD, but solos are not the only measure of great bass playing. Her bass work shines all through the CD. It is solid, intricate, and creative. There is great electric bass work on Cinnamon Tree, the Stevie Wonder cover I Can't Help it, and upright bass-playing on Smile Like That. Hearing Esperanza's bass playing inspires my own playing.

Black Gold, the first single, is a song the celebrates African heritage, is the best track on the CD. Esperanza says she wrote it to encourage black children, and hopes it is something that mothers might sing to their sons.

A few weeks ago, when the single Black Gold was released, someone commented on Esperanza's Facebook page that he felt the song was ethnocentric, and not very good. Of course, I do not agree at all, it is a wonderful song. But his wrong-headed comment raises an issue that is very important. I think Black Gold has a very appropriate message. African-Americans have been oppressed historically in this country. They have been in the minority. History is told from the viewpoint of the dominant culture. Yet, Africa has a very rich cultural history. As the lyrics of the song and the video point out, some of the earliest civilizations and democracies developed in Africa. Africa has a rich heritage for science, humanities, religion, politics, and civilization.

Also, we all have been outraged by the death of Trayvon Martin, and the refusal of the authorities to arrest his murderer. This was a classic case of someone “guilty of walking while black.” As long as young black men are characterized as criminals, there is need for songs like Black Gold, which celebrates the Black/African heritage. It is a prophetic song for this moment.

I am sure the Radio Music Society will be my constant companion on my earphones while I am working at the office the next several days.

There is no filler, all the songs are great! Esperanza Spalding made a great record, I can't wait to see her perform it live!

Track Listing

1 Radio Song
2 Cinnamon Tree
3 Crowned & Kissed
4 Land Of The Free
5 Black Gold
6 I Can't Help It
7 Hold On Me
8 Vague Suspicions
9 Endangered Species
10 Let Her
11 City Of Roses
12 Smile Like That

Purchase Links for Radio Music Society


Esperanza Spalding Radio Music Society Tour Dates

April 18 - Buffalo, NY - Center for the Arts - tickets onsale January 20
April 19 - Cleveland, OH - Metro Campus Auditorium - tickets onsale January 20
April 21 - New York, NY - Webster Hall - tickets onsale January 20
April 22 - Boston, MA - Orpheum Theatre - tickets onsale January 17
April 24 - Seattle, WA - Paramount Theatre - tickets onsale January 27
April 25 - Portland, OR - Crystal Ballroom - tickets onsale January 27
April 27 - Hollywood, CA - The Music Box - tickets onsale January 21
April 28 - Phoenix, AZ - JW Desert Ridge Jazz Festival - tickets onsale January 16
May 1 - Dallas, TX - House of Blues - tickets onsale January 16
May 2 - Houston, TX - House of Blues - tickets onsale January 16
May 3 - New Orleans, LA - New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival - tickets on sale now
May 5 - Austin, TX - Paramount Theatre - tickets onsale January 20
May 23 - Paris, France - La Cigale - tickets onsale TBD
May 28 - London, UK - KoKo - tickets onsale TBD
June 27 - Ottawa, ON - Ottawa Jazz Festival - tickets onsale TBD
June 29 - Montreal, QC - Metropolis Theatre - tickets onsale now

A Track By Track Description of the Radio Music Society songs By Esperanza Spalding

RADIO SONG – This song speaks to an experience we’ve all had at one time or another: when for whatever reason, you turn on the radio and a fragment of a song just grabs you, everything in the world seems to stop, and you sit mesmerized and uplifted by the music. That moment of “being touched” from the radio is a testament to the power of song, and it’s at that magical moment when an artist – even someone we know nothing about – truly connects with their equally unknown listener.

CINNAMON TREE – This is about platonic love among friends, especially the people from childhood that remain with you along the way—no matter what. One of my dearest friends needed a song to cheer her up, and, in an attempt to explain the origin of her nonsensical nickname, I wrote “Cinnamon Tree.” Rightly enough, ruminating on the words “cinnamon tree,” I realized the many ways she brings good to my life, like real cinnamon, too!

CROWNED & KISSED – This song is about the unsung royalty in your life, men and women who quietly, every day do the mightiest, most honorable things. Although they may not end up in castles or with great riches and power, in the eyes of those who love them, they most certainly are mighty and regal.

LAND OF THE FREE – Watching the news one day, there was a featured segment on Cornelius Dupree Jr., a man falsely accused of murder and convicted on bogus evidence. The judge would not admit DNA evidence, and he continued to be held for murder. Finally, after legal assistance from lawyers at the Innocence Project and with the admittance of new DNA evidence, he was acquitted after 30 years of imprisonment. When he spoke at the press conference after his release, he simply said, “Well, I’m kind of having a bit of mixed emotions. I’m kind of, I’m happy, and I’m kind of feeling mixed emotions. You know, after 30 years, that’s a hard walk. I just want to say that I feel that words really won’t make up for what I done lost. You know, I lost both my parents. I just feel that, you know, the system needs to be fixed, by whatever means, you know, so that it just won’t happen to anyone else. That’s about all I have to say.”

These true words certainly can’t begin to speak to the injustices in our penal system. But, overwhelmed by the story, this song just came. Proceeds from the sales of this song go to the Innocence Project.

BLACK GOLD – This song is singing to our African American heritage before slavery. Over the decades, so much of the strength in the African American community has seeded from resistance and endurance. I wanted to address the part of our heritage spanning back to pre-colonial Africa and the elements of Black pride that draw from our connection to our ancestors in their own land. I particularly wanted to create something that spoke to young boys.

I CAN’T HELP IT – I credit Gretchen Parlato for helping me choose this song. A few years back, Gretchen and I did several double bills together, and she would sing this as a duet with Lionel Loueke. I always loved this song, but hearing the melody, lyrics, and story arc pared down to its essentials, I fell in love with it even more, but didn’t know what to do with it in my own band. Sometime after, when I was sitting with the US Five Band and watching another band play standards, Joe Lovano leaned over and said, “Boy, when you do a classic, you can’t just do it the way it’s been done. You have to find your own reason for doing it.” That was the key for me, in terms of interpreting this song. For me, the energetic approach to the story is a dance between subtlety and effervescent eagerness. Joe is a featured guest on this track, and Gretchen—along with Becca Stevens and Justin Brown— is also singing.

HOLD ON ME – Good old unrequited love. When you know the feelings may never be more than internal passion, but still can’t let it go. This song features pianist Janice Scroggins, drummer Billy Hart and Dr. Thara Memory, conducting and arranging for the American Music Program Big Band.

VAGUE SUSPICIONS – In the time we live, most of us in industrialized nations feel really detached from the indiscriminate killing of war. When we read the paper or hear the news of “civilian casualties” or “children perished in the attack,” we are shocked at the details and pictures, and confused about what to do/how to react/what to even think for that matter; and then something else is bound to grab our attention. If you have six minutes to listen to this song, for better or for worse, you’re invited to use this time to think about those realities.

ENDANGERED SPECIES –Wayne Shorter’s album Atlantis is one of the great records of all time. On tour, the band and I would sing the songs in the van, and Leo Genovese (pianist) suggested playing “Endangered Species” live. There is SO much to discover in Wayne’s composition, and we were saturated for years exploring this piece at gigs. One night, I heard the first lyric “human, danger!” and kept on writing from there. Now I’ve partnered with a conservation association, so the proceeds of this song will go to protecting the lungs of the earth (which are terribly imperiled).

LET HER – This is one of my older songs where I had been playing with different ways of writing contrapuntal lines, and this is one of the first “songs” that seemed to work out those experiments. The story is a combination of many different people I’ve known who are in miserable situations and then complain when they end.

CITY OF ROSES – One of my favorite cities in the world, and my hometown, Portland, Oregon, is nicknamed “City of Roses.” This song attempts to portray the bounty of her treasures, and my fond memories of the people and the land.

SMILE LIKE THAT – This is another kind of relationship song, about one that’s clearly about to end. I’m saying, “Okay, I get it, let’s not beat around the bush, if you’re into this other person, go on ahead.” If someone you want to love doesn’t want to love you, better they move ahead, and you cut your ties and your losses…easier sung than done.

JAZZ AIN’T NOTHIN’ BUT SOUL – I first heard this on The Modern Sound of Betty Carter, and it became my theme song. With the love I have for Betty, the love I have for this song, and the way it speaks so pointedly and simply to my philosophy of our music, I couldn’t not record it. With the help of Joe Lovano, Terri Lyne Carrington and the American Music Program directed by Thara Memory, our intention was to musically create a big, funky neighborhood in which to fly the banner of this song and unfurl its meaning.

source: Esperanza Spalding's Website

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