For Your Consideration: Esperanza Spalding’s ‘Radio Music Society’

A couple of weeks back I wrote up a capsule review for the San Antonio Current–the prototypical alternative weekly in town –on Esperanza Spalding’s latest record Radio Music Society. You take the 90 seconds it takes to read here.

I reference this to set-up a fairly bizarre situation that played out shortly before I submitted the piece. I was working on some of the finishing touches via laptop during the Spring Fund Drive for our jazz station here in San Antonio, KRTU 91.7FM. In the large studio we use as Fund Drive HQ, affectionately (though not too cleverly) dubbed “Pledge Central,” we have a half dozen phones, fold-up chairs and enough catered grub for us to last the week. And of course, roughly 8-10 phone volunteers, who on this particular Tuesday afternoon, were milling around the studio looking for something to do while the phones weren’t ringing.

Into this environment, I asked a few individuals (Nextbop editor Anthony Dean-Harris among them) to give my review a quick read-through, primarily to rid the piece of any glaring factual/grammatical errors. The laptop, however, quickly got passed around to everyone. This being a crowd of intellectuals, jazz nerds and generally opinionated folk, the conversation quickly escalated to something resembling firestorm, most of which was based around one particular line from the review:

Esperanza Spalding is jazz’s first bona fide star in decades. Understandably so: she’s attractive, immensely talented, and plays an instrument bigger than she is.

The debate raged as to the need for “attractive” as a modifier. Several staunch feminists in the room argued passionately that such language was blatantly objectifying, cheapening Spalding as an artist and acting as a harmful distraction from her considerable talents. You call Katy Perry attractive in a review, not Esperanza Spalding.

This is a perfectly fair argument, and in most contexts, I would fully agree. But I left the line in, and here’s why. For an audience unfamiliar with jazz (i.e. almost everyone), describing Esperanza as attractive is absolutely necessary in explaining why she is a big deal. After beating Beiber for best new artist at last year’s Grammys and, to a lesser degree, singing during this year’s Oscars, the common refrain from the majority of viewers was “Who the hell is Esperanza Spalding?” (To test the commonality of this response, Google her name, and see how many hits are articles specifically titled “Who Is Esperanza Spalding?”)

Having been asked the “who is Esperanza” question myself roughly a dozen times from various friends and family following both awards show appearances, I found that “really talented jazz musician” was not sufficient. Sure, this was true, but then why haven’t Anat Cohen or Cassandra Wilson or any other equally talented jazz musicians, male or female, been featured on the Grammys? And here, there’s no getting around the attractive factor. Unlike any of her peers, Esperanza can appear on magazine covers, and be featured in magazines that generally have nothing to do with jazz. She can radiate the cosmopolitan cool that once attracted non-jazz audiences to Miles Davis and more recently, swooned Jon Stewart past the point of uneasy gushing.

This isn’t to say that Esperanza’s music has nothing to do with her crossover appeal; tracks like I Know You Know and Precious could totally appear on pop radio (though they never will). However, it’s tough to believe that if, say, Dee Dee Bridgewater would ever have the same degree of notoriety had she put out something like “Precious”. That the other major crossover success from the jazz world in the past decade, Norah Jones, invites the “attractive” tag readily speaks even more to this point.

So let’s bring things back around to Esperanza’s current record, which for all intents and purposes is her “crossover” release. I set my review score at a marginally disappointing 2.5/5, which is admittedly pretty damning. In my review, I based much of my lack of enthusiasm around Radio’s awkward straddling between jazz and pop, with Spalding seeming to be working hard to include chunks of genre into each track, rather than effectively blending them together. Though I’m sure there are plenty of reasons why Esperanza’s crossover bid wasn’t wholly successful, but using the round-robin conversation at Pledge Central as my guide-post, I’ve settled on two:

One, she’s way more concerned about her cred within the jazz world, which explains the knotty arrangements and complex arrangement flourishes that pepper most of Radio’s tracks. And while I find the fact that she cares about Wayne Shorter’s opinion more than Jay-Z’s to be awesome, it’s certainly not an effective strategy for building celebrity.

Two, Esperanza is not a pop star. She may look like one, dress like one, and occasionally sing like one, but deep down she’s just an incredibly hip-looking jazz musician. The proof is all over Radio. A few songs certainly come close to faintly catchy, but there’s nothing built to burn up the charts, or even appropriate to feature on most radio stations (which, if the title is to be taken literally, makes the record a failure by definition). But then, other than Herbie Hancock and maybe Quincy Jones, when have jazz musicians ever been able to effectively cross over onto the pop charts?

Of course to me, Esperanza falling flat as a pop star is perfectly okay. She has no doubt been pressured to make a record like Radio Music Society since she first showed the first glimmer of pop potential on 2007’s Esperanza, and since then, she’s seemed intent to put off that move to mainstream as ardently as possible (Chamber Music Society being the best example). Perhaps with Radio Music Society not the blow-out success of, say, The Mis-Education of Lauryn Hill (or whatever record execs had in mind when they had their sights set on Esperanza), she can return to releasing killer jazz records, occasionally fulfilling the role as jazz’s most alluring ambassador to the mainstream.

To bring this all back into the context of the original Fund Drive debate, the “attractive” tag seems to act as the catalyst for categorizing the two audiences Esperanza is being promoted to: one who needs to have her looks described to understand why she’s a big deal, and one who can take her talent as a musician as enough (and maybe take the looks thing as a bonus). Put more simply– non-jazz and jazz audiences. Since non-jazz people are clearly her intention with Radio, I feel no qualms about describing her to this audience as “attractive”, and will continue to do so in any foray into the pop world. Yet based on Radio Music Society, and Esperanza’s own discomfort at reaching out to this audience, I doubt this will be the case. In fact, I sincerely hope I never have to describe her in a review as attractive again; which is my optimistic way of hoping she never makes a record like this again.

Esperanza Spalding – Radio Song

Esperanza Spalding – Black Gold

Esperanza Spalding – Cinnamon Tree