Blue notes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 April, 2012, 12:00am


'The main way in which the Grammy has changed my life is that I keep getting asked how the Grammy has changed my life,' says Esperanza Spalding, winner of the 2010 award for best new artist, and the first jazz artist to win in that category.

Knowing that the punter's favourite for that year was Justin Bieber probably helped to put the honour into perspective, although the fact that her Wikipedia page was later vandalised by Bieber's fans presumably came as a nasty surprise. But as she pointed out at the time, that a jazz artist was even nominated for the award was helpful in getting exposure for the music. It was also welcome in that Spalding, 27, a fine singer and a bassist of exceptional ability, had talent as well as popular appeal.

Her latest release, Radio Music Society, shows she has plenty of both. Its predecessor, 2010's Chamber Music Society, was Billboard's best-selling jazz album last year, and the new album entered the Billboard jazz albums chart last month at No1, and the Billboard 200 at No10.

Her record label, Heads Up, is presumably confident about making money on this release: quite a lot seems to have been invested in it. Each of Radio Music Society's 11 tracks is the subject of its own video, shot in locations including New York City; Barcelona, Spain; and her hometown, Portland, Oregon.

Two versions of the CD are available: a 'deluxe' edition, which includes a DVD of the videos, and a single audio disc, which includes a code allowing anyone who buys the album to download that content from her website,

As the similarity of titles suggests, there is continuity between Chamber Music Society and the new release. 'Originally I thought it would be fun to release a double album, one disc with an intimate, subtle exploration of chamber works and a second one in which jazz musicians explore song forms and melodies that are formatted more along the lines of what we would categorise as 'pop songs',' the classically trained Spalding says.

'Those are the two things that really interest me, and it intrigues me to think about different presentation approaches while writing each kind of song. On the pop song side, I think about listeners who aren't into jazz, but I also think about the people within my musical community who can interpret each idea best.'

The album opens strongly with the upbeat Radio Song, a piece with something of a Manhattan Transfer feel to it, about listening to a car radio and suddenly being grabbed by an unfamiliar piece of music. 'I wanted to capture that moment when the music just sinks in. It's about the power of song, and how at the least it can save the day,' Spalding says.

Most of the tunes, predictably, are love songs, but with thoughtful and generally optimistic lyrics. Some touch on social issues close to her heart, particularly Black Gold. 'So much of our strength is drawn from resistance and endurance, but black pride didn't just start with the slave trade. I wanted to address our nobility, going back to our incredible ancestors in pre-colonial Africa.

'I remember meetings when I was in elementary school about being strong as young black women, and I don't think the boys had those meetings. This song is meant to speak to those young men, and I imagined it might one day be something that a parent could sing to his or her son,' she explains.

Most of the compositions are originals, but she has also chosen to include covers of Stevie Wonder's I Can't Help It and Wayne Shorter's Endangered Species, for which she has written her own lyrics.

There is a certain continuity of personnel between Chamber Music Society and Radio Music Society too: drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and keyboard player Leo Genovese are back; there are appearances from her friend and mentor saxophonist Joe Lovano, guitarist Lionel Loueke, and legendary jazz drummers Billy Hart and Jack DeJohnette.

Janice Scroggins and Dr Thara Memory, two musicians from Portland with whom Spalding studied, also contribute. 'All my personal heroes who are revered in the jazz world - like Joe Lovano and Terri Lyne Carrington - should be heard by a mainstream audience, because what they manifest in their music is so beautiful, sincere and uplifting,' the musician says.

'So I've tried to put together a programme of music that speaks to the non-jazz listener, but can still provide a viable foundation for my jazz heroes to express themselves. Hopefully, people can enjoy all the elements of my music without being told which genres it is supposedly a blend of. Everyone is invited to listen with no pre-conceived notions.'

Take Three

Three albums featuring Spalding:

Junjo (Ayva Musica, 2006): Spalding's solo debut and a rare opportunity to hear her bass playing in the spare context of a piano trio. Aruan Ortiz plays piano and Francisco Mela, drums.

Folk Art (Blue Note, 2009): Lovano leads a newly formed quintet - including Spalding on bass - through a set of his own compositions.

The Mosaic Project (Concord, 2011): Carrington leads an all-female cast through a strong set, which won for best jazz vocal album at the 54th Grammy Awards this year. Spalding sings Geri Allen's Unconditional Love and her own Crayola.