Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution (2016)

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An extremely gifted bassist and vocalist who famously beat out The Bieb for New Artist of the Year Grammy, Esperanza Spalding grabbed accolades even as she was still finding her true voice. Now landing on a spot called Emily’s D+Evolution, due out March 4, 2015 from Concord Music Group, she may well have reached her destination. Presented as a series of connected sketches revolving around a theme, not unlike Chamber Music Society or Radio Music Society, Emily feels less like an interesting but ultimately merely satisfactory stylistic side excursion than the ‘real’ Esperanza Spalding persona marshalling her ample talents together into a unique exhibit.

The vocal litheness and folk-jazz melodic sophistication of Joni Mitchell, the progressive, confrontational soul-rock of Meshell Ndegeocello, the raw rock-jazz of Christian Scott; the presence of Scott’s guitarist Matthew Stevens having something to do with the latter. Joined also by Erykah Badu’s drummer Karriem Riggins and with spare keys and co-produced by David Bowie’s longtime favored guy behind the glass Tony Visconti, Spalding’s semi-autobiographical suite (“Emily” is her middle name) is also her most personal effort yet. As if to put a fine point on that, some of these eleven originals were recorded live in the studio, complete with a small audience.

Her advance single “Good Lava,” which has a Lenny Kravitz throwback rock heart but the vocals — both her lead and her own backup ones — embraces artfulness that goes almost in opposition to that. Her voice lilting up within lines on here and other numbers such as “Unconditional Love,” “One” and “Noble Nobles” is more than a passing resemblance to Joni, but in fact she’s always sung that way; it’s the same brushstrokes but on a different canvas.

Starting with “Good Lava” it’s clear that she’s going for a rougher sound but not a simpler approach. The intricate melodies alternately summon the spirit of Laura Nyro (“Earth To Heaven”), David Crosby (“Noble Nobles”), and even the funk innovations of James Brown with “Funk the Fear,” where she lifts JB’s uptight rhythm on “Popcorn” and melds it to one of her swerving harmonics. The rapid-fire, overdubbed spoken prose that pop up in the beginning and middle of “Ebony And Ivy” fetches more attention than the fact that she’s playing chugging, alt-rock elsewhere on it.

Spalding’s bass playing (all electric) is as supple and sensuous as always, but don’t look for any solos or otherwise just showing off. Yet, she figures out to make her bass parts essential: listen to how they impart melody on the track like “Unconditional Love” or work contrapuntally with the rhythm guitar on “Judas.”

The concluding “I Want It Now,” a fanciful piano-driven mash of a Broadway show tune and avant-pop, is one last reminder that Spalding chose to follow her muse without regard as to whether her muse leads her through the accessible or the uncommercial. And when a musician of her caliber makes an “I don’t give a damn what the people think” kind of record, that’s exactly when the people need to pay the most attention.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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