Album review: jazz fusion takes dramatic turns in Esperanza Spalding’s latest – Emily’s D+Evolution
Four and a half stars
Esperanza Spalding was never a musician afraid of a concept. Her aptly named 2010 album Chamber Music Society framed Spalding’s soaring jazz-schooled vocals, double bass, and knotty, smart songwriting with the acoustics of a classical chamber ensemble.
Its follow-up, Radio Music Society, plugged in with an unashamedly jazz-meets-pop ethos with an aim to show even jazz could get on the radio if it was fun and funky enough – and it worked. These weren’t experiments in genre-hopping so much as a complete realignment of Spalding’s artistic vision into an existing sonic template. Like Robert Glasper, the musician Spalding is so often listed alongside, the experiment was proving just how malleable jazz – and by extension Spalding’s talents – is to different musical surroundings.
Yet, Emily’s D+Evolution is easily Spalding’s most dramatic departure to date. Opener Good Lava is announced by a slew of trashy guitar squawks, more funk than jazz, and more rock than funk. “See this pretty girl, watch this pretty girl flow,” bites Spalding over the grunge attack, announcing the recurring character of Emily, Spalding’s middle name.
Some have interpreted this alter ego as a protective device, a psychological barrier against the sudden fame that came when Spalding notoriously clipped Justin Bieber to the Best New Artist Grammy in 2011, incurring the trolling of a zillion tone-deaf teenagers.
It’s true that four years have passed since Radio Music Society – but it may have been simply that Spalding took her time writing songs this good.
Unconditional Love is a beautiful, off-kilter ballad, underpinned by frenetic drumming and shimmering chord changes. There’s a hint of Radiohead in the jagged guitar lines of Rest in Pleasure. Ebony and Ivy opens with a Darwin-namechecking, race-conscious a cappella poem. Spalding’s bass is always at the fore of the mix, her rhythm/lead hybrid style especially potent in the smart, stop-start groove of Judas.
Co-produced by long-term Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti (he did Bowie’s swansong Blackstar) and Spalding, Emily’s sweeping sonic canvas and faultless commitment to groove call to mind easy comparisons to Spalding’s pal Prince. But she goes for more than sass and sleaze. Lyrically astute, her octave-leaping conversational delivery recalls vintage Joni Mitchell; the dialled- in acoustic Nobles could be an offcut from vintage-era classic Hejira.
“I want to break the rules,” she bellows on the penultimate Funk the Fear, a piece of pure virtuosity. In theatrical closer I Want it Now – from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – Emily brattishly demands “the whole world” (or she’ll scream). Sonically at least, the world is currently sprawled at Spalding’s feet.
Last February, before a concert at the Dubai Jazz Festival, Spalding compared herself to Zeus and revealed that the album (then scheduled for a summer release) was her “Athena”. Selfishly, I hope Spalding has another Greek goddess up her sleeve, because Emily’s D+Evolution is so rich, I can’t wait to see where she goes next.