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Every track on this consistently compelling album is different. The ghostly pop melody of "Unconditional Love," the hard funk of "Good Lava," and the quick-tongued jazz fusion of "Judas" are just the start of a journey through a personal Land of Oz (or Chocolate Factory).

Music Review: Esperanza Spalding – ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’

Esperanza Spalding, Photo credit: Holly Andres
Photo credit: Holly Andres
The new project from four-time Grammy-winning bassist/vocalist/songwriter Esperanza Spalding is more than an album. For Emily’s D+Evolution (pronounced “d plus evolution”), billed as a “multi-dimensional, theatrical performance artwork,” Spalding worked with stage director and playwright Will Wiegler to translate the songs into physical form at live performances with “stage design, movement and acting.” An April tour of East Coast includes a hometown show at New York’s Apollo Theater.

But the album alone is what most people will have the opportunity to experience. And on its own it’s a killer.

Spalding fuses elements of jazz, R&B, rock, and funk with Sondheim-esque melodic sophistication in tracks like “Earth to Heaven” and “I Want It Now.” Musical-theater reflections would, of course, seem to slot in perfectly to a theatricalized stage show. The song title “Farewell Dolly” is of course a musical-theater reference. And “I Want It Now” is an unbelievably imaginative, lyrically stripped down cover of the gluttonous number sung by Veruca Salt in the 1971 movie Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. In it Spalding builds a whole new pounding, fizzing, angular composition out of the simple but unexpected melodic leaps in the original melody.

Spalding co-produced six of the 12 tracks with Tony Visconti (David Bowie, Morrissey). Others were recorded live. Throughout, there’s little besides bass, drums, guitar, and vocals; the album’s wide spectrum of atmospheres and rhythmic feels arises from sheer musical inventiveness, not instrumental complexity. The genius is imaginative and virtuosic, not (seemingly) engineered or calculated.

The jazz-rooted Spalding is one of the most prominent of a current breed of young artists who follow their muse wherever she may lead, which is sometimes, but not on this album, into preciousness and pretentiousness. On Emily’s D+Evolution, off-beat rhythms and surprising melodies flow as naturally as the blues. Tunes are rooted sometimes in soul and R&B, sometimes in musical-theater and art songs. Vocal flourishes that call Tori Amos to mind. Dips into the avant-garde suggest Meredith Monk or Lori Anderson.

Every track on this consistently compelling album is different. The ghostly pop melody of “Unconditional Love,” the hard funk of “Good Lava,” and the quick-tongued jazz fusion of “Judas” are just the start of a journey through a personal Land of Oz (or Chocolate Factory). With so much variety, the flow comes in no small part from the band’s crystalline musicianship, with Spalding on the fretless electric bass, Justin Tyson and Karriem Riggins alternating on drums, and Matthew Stevens on electric guitar.

Though Stevens is best known as a jazz guitarist, according to his website he is a “self-described guitar fanatic who fell in love with his father’s Jimi Hendrix records as a child.” Just as Hendrix did, Spalding and her band seek to take music in previously unexplored directions, and without leaving listeners behind.

Spalding’s vocals aren’t flashy but they’re as agile as her bass playing, whether on the Sarah Vaughn-esque jazzy flights of “One” or the literate and literary chants of “Ebony and Ivy”:

get your good
old fashioned learnin’…

…ochre, ivy, brick and
leather-bound books to find
and fill our minds with double
standard vision by degrees we
banished slaving over someone
else’s questions tests or problems

The lyrics are speckled with references to feminism as well as racial justice. From “Farewell Dolly”:

i’m the dolly, i’m the wife
damned if i do or die…
damn the way i go and bide
all the rest of my time
waiting for the man to die
for a piece of the pie

These challenging tracks won’t bump conventional talents like Beyoncé and Alicia Keys off the pop charts, but they show how far beyond cookie-cutter pop the basic elements of melody, rhythm, a few instruments, and the human voice can joyfully take us.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases.Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires.Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.

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