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    album review

    Spalding hones her pop-crossover chops

    Smart songwriting elevates ‘Radio Music Society’

    Elizabeth Lippman for The Boston Globe
    Esperanza Spalding calls “Radio Music Society’’ a companion to her last album.

    “Chamber Music Society,’’ the album that netted Esperanza Spalding so much acclaim, not to mention the 2011 Grammy for best new artist, braided strands of jazz, light classical, and gentle R&B in ways that hadn’t precisely been done before. The record was fresh, intelligent, and graceful, if difficult to plug into any particular radio format, but it climbed the jazz charts nonetheless.

    Given such success, her follow-up, naturally, is entirely different.

    Spalding - the bassist, vocalist, and songwriter who grew up in Oregon and graduated from Berklee College of Music - calls “Radio Music Society’’ not a sequel but a companion to “Chamber Music Society.’’ Whereas none of the tunes on the earlier disc were natural fits for radio, one could imagine almost any of the dozen songs on the new one - most of which Spalding wrote - popping up on an FM station.


    And not just jazz stations. This is, in fact, a pop record - but one crammed with more sophisticated songwriting and deep talent than all of the top 20 or 30 titles on the Billboard album chart combined. (The deluxe version includes a DVD featuring short films based on the songs.)

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    It’s obvious now: “Chamber Music Society’’ was not Spalding’s crossover record - this one is.

    “Black Gold,’’ a duet with R&B singer Algebra Blessett, is straight out of the ’70s, with a rhythm worthy of Earth Wind & Fire and an uplifting black-pride refrain whose notes ascend to the heavens. Spalding’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It’’ divides attention between her breathy, soulful vocals and her super-funky electric bass, though the interplay between drums and electric piano is equally paramount. Thanks to a tight arrangement and new lyrics by Spalding, Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species’’ (with Lalah Hathaway) becomes the best Steely Dan song that Steely Dan never made.

    The beat, of course, is of primary importance on a pop record, a notion underscored by the rotating cast of drummers who include some of jazz’s sharpest - people like Terri Lyne Carrington, Jack DeJohnette, and Billy Hart. Most pop drummers keep time; these folks bring their jazz chops to a pop context, and the music is stronger for it. Indeed, the album is packed with talent, with guest spots from innovative guitarist Lionel Loueke, saxophone giant Joe Lovano, breathtaking vocalist Gretchen Parlato, and others. They’re not gratuitous cameos, either. Each artist fits snugly into Spalding’s plan.

    Radio Music Society.”

    Spalding’s skills as a songwriter and bassist seemed fully developed right from her first album, released shortly after her graduation from Berklee. As a vocalist, she’s been a work in progress, with occasionally uneven results. Clearly she’s been working on that end of things, for she is pitch perfect - often dreamy, sometimes hypnotic - throughout “Radio Music Society.’’ This time around she’s not just a vocalist accessorizing her instrumentation; she’s a singer, leading the way with her voice.


    “Cinnamon Tree,’’ a slow R&B number about the power of friendship, is a testament to this. Her singing is sweet and relaxed; she doesn’t overdo it. At times, her voice almost fades in the mix, but then it resurfaces, with soul and confidence. “Radio Song,’’ which opens the disc, sets the tone perhaps more than Spalding anticipated. A narrative about the power of discovering a perfect new song on a car radio, it is itself a perfect new song but one whose structure is complicated - rhythms that slither and shift styles; a melodic line that darts this way and that; a chorus that hopscotches around, requiring (and showcasing) vocal pliability. With assistance from a crew of five backing singers and 14 horn players, most of them teenagers, this one tune offers a clinic in songcraft - an especially valuable tutorial in an age when computerized blips and electronic clicks somehow constitute melody and rhythm.

    In “Radio Music Society,’’ Spalding has made a record of contemporary R&B the likes of which is rarely heard anymore. It is a stunning achievement in contemporary pop. Yet, unlike so much of contemporary pop, it’s timeless.

    Esperanza Spalding plays the Orpheum Theatre on April 22.

    Steve Greenlee can be reached at