Esperanza invites pop to her realm with new record

By Nekesa Mumbi Moody

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, March 22 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Singer Esperanza Spalding performs at the annual Starbucks shareholders meeting Wednesday, March 21, 2012, in Seattle.

Elaine Thompson, Associated Press

NEW YORK — If you didn't know much about Esperanza Spalding — and many people didn't before her surprise Grammy win last year — you might be inclined to think that her latest album, "Radio Music Society," is the jazz artist's attempt to crossover into the mainstream music world.

There certainly are several elements of the record that could lead to such a conclusion. It's her most accessible album, with R&B friendly grooves and production credits from rapper Q-Tip. It even features a cover of a Michael Jackson groove from "Off the Wall."

But if you know Esperanza like renowned jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette, a frequent collaborator and a guest on "Radio Music Society," you will know that the bassist, songwriter, singer and producer never strays far from her jazz roots, and is not one to alter her sound so it fits neatly into any format — and certainly doesn't do it for her most high-profile album to date.

"It has jazz in it, but it's beyond that. I think it sends the message, not only in jazz but in pop, that you can do more with it in terms of the level of music and the artistry and what they might call 'taking risks,'" said DeJohnette. "Hopefully this 'Radio Music Society' CD will inspire musicians, not only in jazz but in other genres, to open up and expand. ... I think we all have that same sensibility, that jazz music can go a lot of places and cover a lot of bases and still hold that."

It's what Spalding had in mind when she crafted the album.

"I actually think the music is served — not just my music but even the music that I consider myself a member of, a community member of jazz music — (it) can actually be served by all of the — what would you call it? Spotlight," she said in a recent interview.

"Radio Music Society" is Spalding's fourth album and represents another highlight in a career that has reached apex after apex. The Portland, Ore., multi-instrumentalist became the youngest instructor at the celebrated Berklee College when she was just 20 years old; she released her first album in 2006. Soon, she would be singing for the likes of President Barack Obama and playing with artists like Prince.

So she was certainly no stranger to success when she was nominated along with artists such as Justin Bieber and Drake for best new artist at the 2011 Grammys. But her win in the category, a first for a jazz act, sent shock waves through the music industry and catapulted Spalding into the pop sphere.

Soon, she wasn't just sought by publications like Jazziz, but also by People and Vogue. Earlier this year, the Academy Awards tapped her to sing "What a Wonderful World" for a tribute to departed film greats, giving the petite Spalding (and her massive signature Afro) yet another major platform and career pinnacle.

"When she had the Oscar shot this year as well, again it just showed her in a different light where she kind of embraced a standard tune and made it her own," said Mark Wexler, head of her record label, Heads Up International. "That certainly was just another shot in the arm for us but also for her and letting people know who she is."

Yet the 27-year-old insists that little has changed since her Grammy upset made her the music industry's It girl.

"Sorry it's not exciting," said Spalding a bit sheepishly when asked about her life these days.

"In the public arena, I suppose more people know about me. That's a big change, which means, you know, publications, or shows or radio shows, they're interested now in talking with me, which is great, because hopefully that means we'll get more gigs," she said of her band.

There's also a chance she might get airplay on stations outside of the jazz genre. BET took the unusual step of premiering the video for her first single, "Black Gold," about instilling black boys with pride in their African roots. That put her amid a rotation that usually includes acts like Rihanna and J. Cole.

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