I can see why jazz purists like Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis get upset when artists like Esperanza do funky music like this. In the commentary of music purists such as those two esteemed examples, there is always a sense of the old black musical critical trope of, ” (artist) sold their soul to the Devil, for commercial success. The reason Spalding’s “Radio Music Society” is such a gift to the worlds of pop and R&B, as her overall career is to jazz, is it is truly rare to get an attractive, well educated, instrumentally talented, young vocalist who plays upright and electric bass and knows music well enough to teach at Berklee College of Music, to come into the popular imagination. During the 1980s a musician/singer as pretty as Esperanza might be advised by the record labels to deemphasize her bass playing, in favor of pre fab beats by the hot producer of the moment. It might be a sign of this type of musics water in the desert quality that she has been able to do her thing without much hinderance. This weeks Anatomy of THE groove pick, “Radio Song, is a jazz-funk throwback that speaks to the power of a simple, good song on the radio to change a persons attitude and mood, therefore changing their day, and in a small way, their life. Spalding uses her unique talents to deliver one of the first songs in true ’70s jazz-funk style I’ve heard in a while, that mixture of jazz, funk, soul and pop that is more song oriented than the musician and rock and roll oriented genre of “fusion.”
The song begins with an intro of shakers and two tracks of Spalding’s wordless vocalizing, singing a playful little melody. The shaker percussion and melody set the song up into a playful, melodic Afro-Latin groove. From there, the bass line kicks in that will define “Radio Song”, but which will no means be played straight through the whole tune. Esperanza plays an extremely funky jazzy bassline, , that makes up what it lacks in notes in slick, rhythmic and melodic sophistication. The bass line is partially chromatic, and uses approach notes to get to its target tones which are the key, standout notes of the line. The bass line too has an Afro-Latin feel to it’s funk, very slinky, most defintitely inspiring movement in the lower back regions. This bass line is basically the main motif of the song, along with Esperanza’s melodies. The bass line represents the “radio song” and that irresistable musical hook that makes a song a hit that sticks in ones mind.
She goes on to tell a story, supported in the video, of a person stuck in traffic, or at work, who turns on the radio, either out of boredom, or a search for a relief. “Somehow he feels it/the DJ at the station/sends sweet salvation”, the DJ at the radio station is a conspiritor int he grand scheme to brighten your day. She sings of how the DJ puts on a song that will “lift your spirits”, a song that you have never heard before but you keep “Singing along”. I think that’s extremely slick and superior song writing on Esperanza’s part. And it also comes from her musical training and jazz background, as well as her background as a listener to music. She speaks to the musical technique’s of writing, and that a skilled writer of music, can make a song you’re hearing for the first time sound like one you’ve already lived with, by the apt use of structure, bridges, melody, hook, chorus, etc. Which is exactly what she does in this song.
She uses a different bassline for the verse, a spare bass line that covers the chord roots with a bossa nova feel. The song alternates between four bars of this line and four bars of the “Radio Song” jazz bass. Around 2:10 the tune goes into a free time passage, with the horns riffing and one horn soloing behind her, the bass walking 4’s, and the drums playing rhythms in a free style. This lasts until 2:57, when the main riff returns. One interesting thing that differentiates the main riff on the chorus and the verse is the jazzy latin style rhythmic piano that backs the bass line on the chorus. Around 4:55 there is a nice piano solo section, where the pianist does a good job of cordinating chordal hits in their left hand with runs and scale lines in the right.
“Radio Song” is a delightful, well composed, bouncy, funky single. The melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and lyrical content are definitely sorely needed on today’s radio stations. Esperanza, like Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, and Minnie Riperton before her, elevates the genre of R&B in this song by virtue of her vast musical training and experience. It’s a thing that used to be common in R&B, as the funk and soul also serve to make all that jazz technique RELEVANT to things people are living and grooving to TODAY. Her song is very clever in it’s lyrical thrust as well as it’s sneaky, sexy groove. Once again, I have to mention my local station KBLX. I can really imagine this on KBLX in the old days, a station on which I heard many jazz-funk releases. Whether or not contemporary outlets play it or not is their problem however, as on my side, I’m convinced “this song’s the one.”