A nouveau ambassador of jazz might seem alien to an audience fed on the music. Since Esperanza Spalding beat Justin Bieber for the Best New Artist Grammy last year, she lived up to her name (which means "hope" in Spanish). An ambassador of jazz is unnecessary in the Crescent City. We have many.
Spalding released Radio Music Society in late March, her post-Grammy follow up to Chamber Music Society. The collection of 12 loosely-knit songs touches on pop, soul, hip-hop, straight-up jazz and cover songs intended to simulate the near-forgotten art of meandering through the radio dial. As she explained to Jon Stewart, Spalding thinks "Society" members "have the ability to be willing to turn on the radio, and open yourself to what comes out."
Spalding seems tailor-made to introduce jazz to the modern masses: exotic name, extensive jazz resume, sensual music, modern style and hair that just can't quit. But don't expect jazz in drag.
Spalding developed a penchant for weaving her bass (electric or upright) into orchestral, straight jazz or modern fusion. Radio Music Society is intended as a pop companion to Chamber Music Society, which blended chamber music with jazz upright bass. Spalding pulls from pop sounds and blends them into her existing style.
That steadfast independent spirit might make it fall flat as a crossover album. For all its nods to modern music, Radio Music Society fits almost too nicely within a tradition of fusion from Miles Davis' Bitches' Brew, Ornette Coleman's Tone Dialing, or Cassandra Wilson's Craig-Street produced work. Anyone eager to dismiss Spalding will find ample reason.
Some critics consider Spalding competent at numerous aspects of performance but not stellar at any. It's better to say she's a jack of all trades with a remarkable sense of self — not to be confused with selfishness or ego. Before Spalding is an ambassador, she is a stylist still developing her fluid playing.
While she's doing her thing, her performances and latest album feel like she's merely encouraging everyone – jazz aficionado or otherwise — to be open to tuning in.