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Esperanza Spalding must have a loving fondness for Broadway.
The Grammy-winning artist’s latest project, “Radio Music Society,” could be easily mistaken for live recordings of select show tunes or finales. Some quaint and delicate, others dazzling. But what seems slightly off center stage is Spalding herself.
Spalding’s gifts, singing and bass playing, have a noted presence throughout the album. Her idiosyncratic vocal styling trades vibrato for jazzy flair, like on the Latin groove “Radio Song” and the warm and funky “City of Roses.” The lyrical themes detail profound romance, ethnic pride and love of nature. To top it off, her delivery shows an acute connection beyond memorization.
Spalding’s connection to the live instrumentation feels even more stellar. As the best modern jazz usually roots itself around an able bass run and nimble drum playing, her album wonderfully shares that necessary focal point. Her capabilities on the electric bass provide a phenomenal groove, and her work on an upright bass sounds as great as jazz legend Ron Carter.
The accompanying pieces organically surround Spalding and whatever mood she provides, and sometimes skitter off to the side into a vibrant jam session, making a worthwhile case for classical musicianship.
Yet, occasionally her contributions get swamped. The expansive accompaniments on “Society” wallow in their obviously rich sound and sadly tend to grow greater than Spalding’s sole efforts. “Cinnamon Tree” has a gorgeous arrangement of delicate violins nestled atop Spalding’s bass and smooth kick-centered drums. Her voice has a smooth tone and praises the titular tree in a cute way without feeling hopelessly indulgent. The sounds mesh together well, but interest in her kooky ode lessens after the verse ends and a bluesy guitar solo confidently strides through.
Equally disconcerting are “I Can’t Help It” and “Black Gold,” the latter of which finds Spalding’s voice overpowered by guest Algebra Blessett’s huge vocals.
Listeners would expect a much tighter control of the proceedings from Spalding. Yet perhaps the analogy to a Broadway play had more to do with the album’s tendencies with her voice as the main character, the bass as a swanky co-star and the musicians as confident stagehands finally taking that chance to shine.