Needle Drop: Esperanza Spalding, Emily’s D+Evolution

Thank God for performers like Esperanza Spalding—well-honed, masterful musicians confidently exploring new musical ground. Ms. Spalding’s new album, Emily’s D+Evolution on Concord Records is soulful, heavy, jazzy, melodic, proggy, challenging, and sure—let’s just say—kinda psychedelic. The vinyl copy this reviewer received was flat and mostly quiet.

Many tracks on the album are basically flawless (“Elevate or Operate” is a song in a league of its own)—heavyweight musicianship supports Spalding’s melodies and compositions. But, things move so fast! Many times I found myself saying out loud (to nobody, of course), “what was that?” Before I could catch that lyric, chord change, or musical phrase, it was long gone; part of me yearned for the pace of the record to just slow down—there’s so much good here, but it goes by in a flash, almost rushed. Repeated, close, listening allows a listener to fully immerse themselves in and appreciate this work.

Producer Tony Visconti wisely allows Spalding and her crew do their thing—most songs sport a tightly knit guitar, drum, and bass arrangement, albeit with intensive vocal supports. Playing is superb, Spalding is, as you know, a standout bassist, but she doesn’t let her bass playing steal the show—she wants you to appreciate these compositions and arrangements. Even though the personnel is barebones, there is still occasionally the feeling that things might go off the rails. The digital guitar effects and busy rhythm section of “Rest in Pleasure” are exciting, but nearly overwhelm.

The shadow of Joni Mitchell is evident here, especially on tracks like “Noble Nobles.” Ms. Spalding’s use of her upper register, bouncing vibrato, and portamento draw comparisons to Mitchell that are impossible to ignore. Spalding’s vocals have become richer since her earlier works, wiser, and earthier. Her vocal instrument will surely continue to mature and embrace the range she nails in “Elevate or Operate,” “Earth to Heaven,” and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s “I Want It Now.” Bjork, Radiohead, and ’90s progressive funk/rock can be heard as well.

Here, Esperanza Spalding draws upon all of her broad musical influences and does everything in her power to create something new and original. Some might bark and bite about whether Ms. Spalding, the great jazz bassist, has made a jazz record or not.

Well, what is jazz anyway? It’s a living, breathing thing in continual development. And why does Esperanza Spalding have to fit into your narrow definition of what jazz is, anyway? Emily’s D+Evolution might wear the varnish of pop music, but these compositions have deep jazz roots. As excellent as this record is, the next one could be a truly breathtaking humdinger.

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