Album of the Week 11-2016: Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution

Contemporary Jazz generally doesn’t appeal to me. Except when it does. That sounds a bit trivial and it probably is, but some artists just connect with me. Like Trombone Shorty. And Esperanza Spalding. Her unique musical vision and relatively song oriented approach has already resulted in a couple of good albums – I quite enjoyed 2012’s ‘Radio Music Society’ – but with ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’, Spalding obviously had an approach in mind that required a tight-knit band. The result is a highly dynamic and surprisingly guitar heavy album that combines equal parts of Jazz, R&B and Rock, as well as hints of Pop.

Esperanza Spalding’s work on the bass – both acoustic and electric – is second to none, but in the past, her voice has sometimes rubbed me the wrong way. She’s obviously a very skilled singer, but when she breaks away from her standard alto range, she somehow reached a frequency that I personally didn’t enjoy listening to. She still does that on ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’, but for whatever reason, it works a lot better for me this time. At times, it feels like I’m listening to a 21st century R&B version of Kate Bush, with whom she shares an eccentricity, but not a style.

Apparently, Spalding put together the band especially for this album. The drums are handled quite proficiently by either Justin Tyson or Karriem Riggins, but the true revelation of the record – besides Spalding herself, obviously – is guitarist Matthew Stevens, whose seamless transitions between restrained riffing and distorted madness is largely responsible for the Fusion-like feel of the majority of ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’. Whether he and Spalding collaborate on a crazy riff in unison (‘Funk The Fear’), goes wild with a solo (the alternate version of ‘Unconditional Love’) or sets the mood with a Hendrix and Zeppelin meet jazzy dissonance riff (opening track ‘Good Lava’), it makes for a truly pleasant listening experience.

Because the number of musicians per track is relatively limited – four of the album’s tracks were even recorded solely by Spalding, Stevens and Riggins – these songs really get the room they need to breathe. With the number of styles covered on the album, it could easily have become a bloated mess of virtuosos, but in this composition it just works. The rhythms can be funky if they need to, the chords can hit hard when the song asks for it and there’s plenty of room for Spalding’s trademark dreamy contemplations.

The eclectic, but still smooth and song oriented appraoch of the album makes ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’ a genre transcending masterpiece that could easily work as a gateway record for R&B or Rock enthusiasts who consider delving deeper into Jazz. And with Spalding being in her early thirties, it makes me hopeful about what the future will bring. I’m hoping for more works of the same brilliance, but even if ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’ turns out to be too good to equal, it can still be seen as a crowning achievement for her. As a bass player, as a singer, as a band leader and as a songwriter. An absolute must.

Recommended tracks: ‘Good Lava’, ‘Funk The Fear’, ‘Change Us’, ‘Judas’

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