Esperanza Spalding's fourth album, Radio Music Society (a companion piece to Chamber Music Society in name only) is one of enormous ambition -- polished production, sophisticated, busy charts, and classy songwriting -- that consciously juxtaposes neo-soul and adult-oriented jazz-tinged pop. It employs a stellar cast, largely of jazz musicians, to pull it off. She produced the set, with help from Q-Tip on a couple of numbers, and wrote all but two songs here: a cover of "I Can't Help It" (a Michael Jackson cover written by Stevie Wonder) and Wayne Shorter's "Endangered Species." There are truckloads of players, including three different all-star drummers in Terri Lyne Carrington, Jack DeJohnette, and Billy Hart, saxophonist Joe Lovano, and guitarists Jef Lee Johnson and Lionel Loueke on "Black Gold" (which also contains his vocals and an appearance by the Savannah Children's Choir). Though Ms. Spalding takes most lead vocals, there are also duet appearances from Lalah Hathaway and Algebra Blessett. Backing vocalists include Gretchen Parlato (who also anchors a chorus on several tunes) and Leni Stern. The American Music Program horn section appears on three cuts. The highlights here include "Crowned & Kissed" (a Q-Tip co-production) with its rubbery bassline, contrapuntal horns, Leo Genovese's artful pianism, and Carrington's impeccable sense of swing that bridges funk, neo-soul, jazz, and hip-hop. "Radio Song" contains layered interpolated rhythms (again courtesy of Carrington), sparkling Rhodes piano, syncopated horns and backing chorus, Spalding's alto croon, and a taut, popping bassline. Lovano's saxophone adds a truly elegant and graceful dimension to "I Can't Help It." The charts on Shorter's tune (with lyrics by Spalding) illuminate what may have been the composer's intent all along -- and nod at Pastorius-era Weather Report simultaneously. DeJohnette's funky subtlety drives the knotty fingerpop of "Let Her," and Hart's trademark, shimmering cymbal work on "Hold on Me" complements Spalding's sultry vocal in retro bluesy pop -- it's one of only a couple of places on the record where she plays acoustic bass. While Radio Music Society may play better to younger pop audiences than more die-hard jazzheads, this program is so diverse and well executed -- despite a little overreaching -- it's anybody's guess.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek