If you wondered who the woman with the vintage Afro singing “What a Wonderful World” on the Oscars was, you’re no Justin Bieber fan. If you were, you’d recognize Esperanza Spalding as the jazz singer who brazenly stole the best new artist Grammy from under Bieber’s nose in 2011, making her No. 1 on the tween-Interpol public-enemy chart.
But Spalding has more in common with Bieber than we might at first have assumed. It turns out the jazz usurper is a music video star, too – or at least should be, on the basis of her new album, “Radio Music Society,” which comes with an hour-length DVD or download that dramatizes 11 of the 12 tracks.
And, as Oscar producer Brian Grazer clearly recognized, the camera adores her as much as any microphones could … even if getting all that hair into frame does pose a challenge.
Spalding is, in one sense, squarely in the easy-on-the-eyes tradition of comely genre evangelists like Diana Krall and Jane Monheit. But she’s out on her own as far as dealing in original material instead of great American songbooks. Fortunately, the songs on “Radio Music Society” – her fourth album, but the first anyone’s likely to call “pop-oriented” – are up to the task of establishing her as that rarest of things, a jazz singer capable of crossing over with self-penned tunes.
And if she happens to not only sound like Roberta Flack or jazz-period Joni but look transfixing running her hands up and down a bass neck that appears to be about six feet long, that’s just a bonus.
Newcomers won’t go wrong starting with either the audio CD or the album-length movie (which comes on a separate disc in the deluxe edition and is available via download for anyone who buys the standard CD or digital version).
Some of the videos establish Spalding’s camera-ready winsomeness right up front, like the opening “Radio Song.” Others point up a social conscience that might not be immediately apparent from the audio alone, which is useful for anyone who might be turned off by the unabashed effervescence of the more high-spirited videos.
“Vague Suspicions” has Spalding trying to read wartime news accounts in a seaside lounge where everyone else is transfixed by reality TV; retreating to the beach, she’s surrounded by imaginary mortar blasts. (Coincidentally, Spalding is describing the exact same feeling of disconnect that Suzanne Collins has said led her to write “The Hunger Games.)
Sexual politics are played for a couple of video twists. Inher cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It” – which takes on a distinctly tropical flavor in Spalding’s hands, albeit with lots of bottom end and an assist from sax great Joe Lovano -- the performer contemplates cheating on a male live-in lover with a female crush.
But lest anyone automatically assume Spalding is revealing her true orientation there, “Hold On Me” -- a track with more of a big-band feel -- dramatizes her developing infatuation with a handsome male bartender. Of course, a few minutes into the video, he breaks her heart by suddenly planting a big kiss on a fellow dude.
There are unabashed moments of pure sparkliness, like “Cinnamon Tree,” which has Spalding spewing special effects out of her bass at a band audition, or “Let Her,” which shows her spreading spiritual good cheer to a newly dumped guy from an adjacent apartment window.
This effusive, hepster-defying cheer feels as ‘70s-retro in its own way as the unjust-incarceration protest song “Land of the Free” or the African-American pride anthem “Black Gold.”
Combine all that unpretentious friendliness and social awareness with a sweet voice, great instrumental chops, occasional Steely Dan-style horn charts, and harmonies that are initially challenging but ultimately easy on the ear, and what’s not to love? Not much, unless you’re still a year or two away from growing out of that Grammy grudge.