The jazz singer and bassist -- and former Grammy "Best New Artist" -- has created a beyond category masterpiece that sounds better than if Joni Mitchell hired Living Colour as her band and then grafted it all onto a hip-hop sensibility of sorts.
Esperanza Spalding’s new recording, Emily’s D+Evolution is an astonishing beauty, a set of a dozen songs that artfully and persuasively bridge genres. It is simultaneously the most forward work of the singer and bass player in the way it combines her musical influences with coherent and powerful lyrics and a project that feels rooted in a 1970s sensibility — reminding us of a time when pop, soul, jazz, rock, and singer-songwriter tradition were in constant dialogue. Because Spalding’s individual strengths as a fleet singer and superb instrumentalist are so perfectly set in these songs, they do not sound like throwbacks, however. Emily’s D+Evolution is a recording only Spalding could have made, and it shouts with invention, confidence, and style.
There has been a parade of young artists over the last 20 years who started as jazz-trained prodigies then moved toward various forms of pop, particularly if their talents included singing. A while ago, Harry Connick started in jazz and became a sort-of pop star. Diana Krall’s Nat Cole-Meets-Anita O’Day style has, in fits and starts, mutated into indie-Americana or slick Streisand pop. More recently, Norah Jones has shifted from kind-of-jazz smash success (Come Away with Me) to indie rock (Little Broken Hearts). Teenage Ella imitator Nikki Panofsky put herself in the hands of Quincy Jones to create a fun but mostly vacuous pop record in 2014. And saxophonist Grace Kelly has recently made a bid for more pop recognition, appearing on Colbert’s Late Night show with Jean Batiste and singing in more of a pop vein on, for example, “The Other One” from her recent Trying to Figure It Out. Can you blame these talented young people for turning away from straight-ahead jazz, at least in part, to imagine a way to find a bigger audience?
Esperanza Spalding has been doing this too but in ways that have been exceptional. While she has an unimpeachable claim to mainstream jazz legitimacy (playing with Joe Lovano and Geri Allen, for example), her first solo recordings deftly combined rich acoustic jazz playing with both Latin and funk elements. Junjo from 2006 found her covering Jimmy Rowles and Chick Corea, mostly adding wordless vocals to post-bop and Afro-Cuban mix. A couple of tracks from 2008’s Esperanza were prophetic: “Precious” opens with a killer hook of wordless soul-harmonizing worthy of Stevie Wonder, followed by a grooving ballad over a hip bass line and brilliant set of harmonies; and “I Know You Know” is a tricky jazz line that manages also to be a hip-shaker. No less a fan than Barack Obama brought her in for a private concert, and she stunned folks in the media by winning the 2011 Grammy for Best New Artist over a field including Drake, Justin Bieber, and Mumford & Sons.
Spalding followed this breakthrough with two intriguing records. Chamber Music Society (2010) was also complex and funky at once, but it made judicious and intelligent use of a string trio in addition to a jazz trio, not abandoning Spalding’s dedication to Latin grooves or the momentum of improvisation. And in 2012 a companion-piece, Radio Music Society, was even better: with actual Wonder tunes meeting up with complex Wayne Shorter compositions on a record that suggested a deep understanding of how intelligent and complex pop could become while still appealing to the ear. Both of these records, in essence, still contained richly layered jazz — even as they communicated pleasure in heaps.
Expectations for Emily’s D+Evolution, four years later, could hardly be higher or trickier. Advance word suggested that this was going to be something wholly different, with a different band and different instrumentation focusing largely on electric guitar and electric bass. Was this going to be Spalding’s “rock record”, her first real bid to snap further away from jazz?
Somehow, the answer is “yes” and “no” all at once. It is absolutely true that the new record sounds less like an acoustic, swinging jazz record than any of Spalding’s prior work. The guitarist is Matthew Stevens, who has played extensively with Christian Scott and Ben Williams, who plays electric in a style that owes as much to Marc Ribot or Bill Frisell as it does to traditional jazz. The drummer is Karriem Riggins, whose profile is an even divide between jazz (Ray Brown, Cedar Walton, even Diana Krall) and hip-hop (production for Madlib, J Dilla, Common, and Kanye West). Corey King provides keyboards and the producer is the veteran Tony Visconti, whose productions stretch from David Bowie and Gentle Giant to The Kaiser Chiefs, Alejandro Escobedo and, well... David Bowie. Which is say, Visconti produced Bowie’s remarkable final record Blackstar, which featured a group of jazz musicians who were not exactly playing jazz.
Emily’s D+Evolution, then, emerges as the astonishing hybrid that might come from the most melodic and soulful of our current jazz artists working with the most eclectic of rock producers and musicians of huge range. The span of this record runs from arcing, lyrical singer-songwriter jazz-pop to funking metal-jazz to grooves and theatrical set-pieces that lean into progressive hip hop. And if that concept is not wide enough for you, the lyrics to these original songs are best of Spalding’s career, telling stories about a young female alter ego (Emily is Spalding’s middle name) who is struggling with and conquering the challenges of her (and our) age.
Listening to Emily’s D+Evolution nearly continually, even obsessively for over a week, still leaves me reaching for ways to summarize its sound and effect. Comparisons are weak but inevitable. “Judas”, for example, is a fun-house of a melody that winds around a set of hip chords and descending four-note bass licks that lead the band into syncopated stops. The lyrics are equally winding, a word-rich story about a character threaded through a modern landscape. Like the recent songs written by Walter Becker and Donald Fagan of Steely Dan, “Judas” insists on the harmonic and melodic complexity of jazz while still feeling shot-through with DNA of a classic 1960s pop construction.
That sophist-pop sensibility is similarly evident in the tunes that will inevitably bring to mind Joni Mitchell’s hippest, 1970s and 1980s, jazz-tinged work. “Earth to Heaven” has quick moments of bass funk lit up by sunshine chords and slowed-down patches of melody that bring you back to the hook. The lyrics interrogate what it means to go through life without certainty about direction or the presence of god. “Noble Nobles” has a similar Mitchell-esque elasticity to its melody, and Riggins finds that perfect place between a tumbling ‘70s funk reminiscent of Bernard Purdie and the rat-a-tat precision of modern break beats.
“One”, narrated in the first person, sounds even more like Mitchell in the shape of its melody, and it also reflects the older songwriter’s obsession with how romantic experiences are just microcosms of how a person negotiates the world, gravity, and atmosphere. It’s impossible to listen to this track without hearing the way that Spalding’s pliant electric bass has been influenced by Mitchell’s long-time collaborator, Jaco Pastorius. The playing is worthy of that legacy.
But suggesting that Spalding has somehow cloned Mitchell in the form of a throwback project would be wrong. In its methods — usurping ideas, forms, and feels from across a wide spectrum of the firmament of American pop/art music — Emily is more like a Prince record or a recent hip hop project. “Unconditional Love” may sound like a good Laura Nyro song but is underpinned a rhythm section feeling straight out of today, with double-time funked drumming and atmospheric guitars under the winding blues melody.
“Rest in Pleasure” may be the song here that sounds most of 2016, using off-kilter hip hop rhythms in Riggins’ drumming and an infectious chorus of “ha-ha-ha-ha” that throbs with a dash of influence from Steve Reich or Philip Glass. Stevens’ guitars chime and rustle, layered into an orchestra of wheels within wheels.
“Ebony and Ivy” is even more ambitious, opening and closing with a spoken-word chunk rapped in a hypnotic, harmonized robot tone, quickly followed by a swaying funk vocal that weighs in on self-realization, racism, education, and idealism. It’s a song that is beyond genre in precisely the way that Kendrick Lamar’s recent music, collaging styles and invention such that it feels impossible to ape, singular, in the realm of a masterpiece.
If you’re thinking that Emily is probably too quirky or disparate in style to be fun, well, that’s also an oversimplification. “Good Lava” features the funky, herky-jerky rock of Living Colour, Spalding’s voice ripping over precise bobbing guitar/bass licks in continual call-and-response with background vocals. The melody bounces across wide intervals and bobs in thrilling, staccato repeated notes. It’s a opening shot of adrenaline that also acts as a young woman’s response to daring sexual attention. “Funk the Fear” is similar and a joy: all quick-sung blues lines that jump up and down athletically while Stevens’ guitar and Spalding’s bass do the same thing in a counterpoint that seems like it was jointly composed by George Clinton and JS Bach.
This record also, well, rocks. “Elevate Or Operate” could be a progressive rock song, almost a suite that shifts from section to section, dramatic drum fills connecting different feels and rhythms as Spalding’s voice negotiates a tricky melody in waves of call and response — different choir vocals weaving about her solo singing. It makes your head spin before it resolves at the end into a hip little hurdy-gurdy section that fades into the sound of birds in the trees.
Most Grammy Best New Artists prove to be lesser than best. And most young jazz prodigies whose flag runs quickly up the pole don’t wave long or beautifully or artfully. Esperanza has now proven, five recordings into her career without one dud and without a single one that seems like treading water, that she is the exception: a critical and potent force in modern music. “Jazz” is a word that can’t claim this dazzling record, but as Spalding’s training/proving ground, it is a genre given additional relevance because of this boundary-less artist’s ongoing achievement.