Album Review: Emily's D+Evolution by Esperanza Spalding
Excellent, Based on 12 Critics
PopMatters - 90 Based on rating 9/10
Esperanza Spalding’s new recording, Emily’s D+Evolution is an astonishing beauty, a set of a dozen songs that artfully and persuasively bridge genres. It is simultaneously the most forward work of the singer and bass player in the way it combines her musical influences with coherent and powerful lyrics and a project that feels rooted in a 1970s sensibility — reminding us of a time when pop, soul, jazz, rock, and singer-songwriter tradition were in constant dialogue. Because Spalding’s individual strengths as a fleet singer and superb instrumentalist are so perfectly set in these songs, they do not sound like throwbacks, however.
In 2011, Esperanza Spalding ruined what was expected to be a grand coronation for Justin Bieber. The teen star was supposed to waltz into the Grammys, collect his "Best New Artist" trophy and dance triumphantly into the sunset. But instead, that award went to Spalding, the affable bassist with a bright smile and big Afro. In response, her Wikipedia page was vandalized, and the Recording Academy soon changed its rules, making it tougher for indie acts like Spalding to reach Grammy-level recognition.
Talented jazz musician Esperanza Spalding is best known for snatching the Best New Artist Grammy from the clutches of a young Justin Bieber back in 2012. That year's experiment, Radio Music Society, transmuted the textures of neo-soul through tricky changes and unlikely arrangements – avant-garde, yes, but ultimately as welcoming as pop music. Follow-up Emily's D+Evolution is a far more ambitious and thornier affair.
On previous albums, Grammy-winning bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding dived into jazz standards, Brazilian rhythms, and sophisticated, harmonically nuanced R&B. But with her 2016 album, Emily's D+Evolution, she takes an entirely different approach. A concept album revolving around a central character named Emily (Spalding's middle name), Emily's D+Evolution is not a jazz album -- though jazz does inform much of the music here.
When bassist and singer-songwriter Esperanza Spalding played this music – from her most high-concept album yet – live in London last year, there was plenty of jubilant instrumental jamming alongside the new material. The album focuses on her vocals, with their wily melodic turns, personal poetry, spoken-word chatters and skewed R&B hooks. But even if they are pop songs, a few could have been composed by Wayne Shorter, and Spalding’s voice has never sounded so assured in its dizzying ascents from mid-range murmurs to falsetto swoops.
On her fifth solo album, Esperanza Spalding asks, what if her younger self had not gone on to pursue jazz greatness and instead embraced her other influences? Enter Emily, the middle name Spalding was called as a child. Emily is electric and amplified, patterned and braided. She is Esperanza in Clark Kent glasses, a loose disguise signifying only a different presentation of her proven musicianship.Emily's D+Evolution is not a pure jazz project in any sense, but instead an assortment of funk and rock records clearly drawn up by players with underlying jazz backgrounds.
THIS IS AN ALBUM OF FIRSTS for Esperanza Spalding. Emily’s D+Evolution is her first album of almost all original compositions (the only cover here is “I Want It Now”, from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) and her first album on which she has embraced a heavier, often guitar based sound. As a result, despite her past forays into classically influenced territory (Chamber Music Society) and mixes of jazz and soul elements with a pop sensibility (Radio Music Society), this is arguably her first album that runs a serious risk of alienating some of her fan base.
You know it’s a good year when there’s not one, but two jazz releases making the rounds outside of jazz circles for the right reasons. We miss great music all the time, and three months into 2016, there’s already subversive hip-hop, classic-rock revival and navel-gazing indie worth catching ….
It's tempting to read Esperanza Spalding's Emily as another alter ego in a long line of music's famous second selves - from Bowie's Ziggy Stardust to Beyoncé's Sasha Fierce. But the persona she introduces on her fifth full-length does more than allow the Berklee-trained double bassist to chart unfamiliar musical territory and inhabit a pointedly different identity. Or maybe it does less.
Esperanza Spalding is quite the multi-hyphenate: She’s a bassist, composer, singer, and arranger, as well as a winner of the Grammy for best new artist (she beat Justin Bieber in 2011) and one of the youngest people given a teaching position at Berklee College of Music. Her new album builds on that idea in a thrilling way, taking the experimental ideals that she learned as a student of jazz into new directions — heady funk, tongue-twisting soul, sparsely arranged confessional — that consistently surprise. Framed as a reclamation of what Spalding calls “un-cultivated curiosity,” “Emily’s D+Evolution” (the title comes from her middle name) sounds, in moments, like Spalding is discovering where her creative impulse can take her in real time.
Who is Esperanza Spalding? That was the question that rattled around Google after she dared to beat out Justin Bieber in 2011 as the surprise winner of the Grammy Award for new artist. She was, at that point at least, a 26-year-old jazz bassist, vocalist and composer with a number of vibrant releases as a bandleader and sideman under her belt, including a long stint backing saxophonist Joe Lovano. That moment at the Grammys — which, of course, featured precious little time for audiences to hear her as a performer — led to appearances at the Oscars, the Nobel Prize ceremony and the White House as her status as the next great hope for jazz seemed all but cast.
Whimsy gets weaponized on Esperanza Spalding’s new album, “Emily’s D+Evolution.” Ms. Spalding, hailed over the last decade as a springy jazz bassist and an irrepressible vocalist, has hardened her singer-songwriter ambitions and tightened her grip as a bandleader. The album — a sustained burst of funk enlightenment that rings with echoes of childhood — has its blind spots, but she sounds surer than ever of her footing.