Remember a few years back when Twitter was new and Justin Bieber was up for Best New Artist at the Grammys, but lost to a young jazz bassist named Esperanza Spalding? Maybe you know her from her actual music, but I’d wager for most people, that was the first time they heard her name and maybe the last time, too.
It’d be a shame if you hadn’t kept up, though, since she’s been making some pretty good tunes over the years. Personally, I’m most fond of her 2006 LP Junjo, where she led a trio through latin-tinged jazz, mixing original compositions with versions of songs by older musicians like Chick Corea (“Humpty Dumpty”). It was a pretty straight-forward session, but over the years she’s been pushing at the edges: 2012’s Radio Music Society was mixing in elements of soul, pop and rock: “Radio Song” occasionally sounded like Diana Krall, but it also pulsated with energy and ambition, easily taking her into new territory.
That was three years ago, however. I hadn’t heard much about her in the time since, but when her new record dropped recently, the changes were immediate, distinctive, and amazing. With Emily’s D+Evolution, her music’s matured into a hard-edged mix of jazz, rock and funk.
It opens with “Good Lava” and her singing “See this pretty girl / Watch this pretty girl flow,” and a guitar crashing against her angular bass lines. Between riffs sounding like something off a Steven Wilson record and her singing, it’s immediately apparent she’s onto something new here. On Emily’s D+Evolution, she’s fronting a power trio: she plays bass, Matthew Stevens plays guitar, and either Karriem Riggins or Justin Tyson play drums.
It’s an interesting mix of musicians; Riggins has worked with Krall, but also with Dilla, Earl Sweatshirt, and Madlib, while Stevens has worked with Harvey Mason Sr., (where he played alongside Kamasi Washington). The results are something else, 12 tracks of swaggering, confident music (expanded to 14 if you buy the “deluxe edition”).
Throughout Emily’s D+Evolution, Spalding is pushing into new territory. On “Judas,” her bass leads the band through a stop-start beat, singing pointed lines like “But if you ask my advice us raging girls are china dolls fed up … Digging up holy scriptures to shame her while she drowns.” Likewise, the prog-inspired guitars roll across “Elevate or Operate,” where her singing keeps one foot in her past, while the chugging rock rhythm suggests a different way forward.
At the same time, her jazz roots are always there, from her bass lines to the way she phrases her vocals. Sometimes, evokes Joni Mitchell’s late 70s records: the soft, upper register bass playing and the way she sings on “Farewell Dolly” evokes records like Hejira, where Jaco Pastorius accompanied Mitchell, who was trying to remold herself into a jazz singer.
But it’s also the negative image of those records, where Mitchell’s folk past informed her jazz leanings: here, moments “Farewell Dolly,” aren’t where Spalding’s music is headed, but a respite between it’s angular rock and funk, which takes influence from everything from prog-rock staples like Yes to jazz-influenced rock like Frank Zappa to even Laurie Anderson (compare her repeating vocal riff on “Rest in Pleasure” to Anderson’s “O Superman”).
There are even moments where the band lets loose, with stunning results: the deluxe edition ends with an alternate version of “Unconditional Love,” which gives Stevens a chance to let loose and play an extended solo, while Spalding pushes the groove forward on her bass. It’s pretty exciting and makes you wish there was more moments like that on record; maybe she’s saving them for the stage.
Between Kendrick Lamar, Thundercat, and Washington, last year showed there’s new life in jazz and even some popular interest. With records like David Bowie’s Black Star, (where the late rocker utilized jazz musicians) and this, 2016 is continuing the trend: Emily’s D+Evolution isn’t just Spalding’s most adventurous record yet, it’s one of the most ambitious records I’ve heard this year. Recommended, and not just if you’re familiar with her back catalogue.
Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.