You might remember Esperanza Spalding as the musician who “stole” the Best New Artist Grammy away from Justin Bieber back in 2011. Though she was hardly a new artist at that point, having just released her 3rd album, the superb Chamber Music Style. Despite the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences not understanding the word “new,” any recognition thrown Esperanza’s way is well deserved. I should start by saying that I don’t think there is a genre I’m less qualified to judge than jazz. While I listen to it, it’s rare that I explore anything outside of the classics, unless they’re suggested to me. It is something that in recent years I’ve tried to change, but still I believe that many of its complexities are beyond me. All I can do is listen, over and over, and try to access the parts that speak to me.
I’m happy to say that one artist who sparked my initial interest in exploring jazz further was Esperanza herself. Back in 2009 she was one of eight performances chosen for The White House’s Poetry Jam, a night where they select poets and musicians who have made an impact in the given year. Esperanza performed a cover of Lauryn Hill’s “Tell Him” and I was gone; her version is forever sealed in my 10 favorite songs of all time (fun fact: that year the evening was closed with Lin Manuel Miranda performing what is now the opening song of his world famous musical Hamilton six years before the show would open). I’ve enjoyed all her work since then but I’d have to say my favorite album of hers is 2012’s Radio Music Society. As simple as it sounds, it just made me feel good. I loved it. Feeling as though she was losing her grip on her creativity and uniqueness as an artist she decided to take some time off when the album was finished. Which brings us to now, four years later almost to the day, she’s back with Emily’s D+Evolution. Let’s get to it.
The ENERGY here! It's astounding, with fresh sounds and melodies at every turn. Chaotic, complex, beautiful, the list of adjectives goes on. Having held off listening to the singles prior to the album’s release (I wanted to experience it as a whole) I was a bit overwhelmed during my first listen through. It felt more like an experience to be had than an album to be heard. The opening single, “Good Lava” is in your face instantly, and while I like the song, it isn’t one I would have opened with from a structure standpoint. This is completely personal preference, but for an album with so much life, I would have loved to have been eased into it with an extended instrumental. I definitely get a sense of Janelle Monae. Except where Monae connects everything through a common theme that she weaves in and out of, Spalding seems to be introducing ideas and themes that she will continue to explore in the future. She is setting the table for things to come, allowing herself room to expand in a dozen different directions. Many songs contain a handful of melodies and arcs, which makes for a challenging and eventually rewarding listen. I see this as the beginning of something magnificent. It’s almost like she’s broken free of her past self and we’re hearing an explosion of everything she’s been feeling and has wanted to share. Her swirling, crazed, and confident cover of the Willy Wonka classic “I Want It Now” to conclude the album is more of a statement than anything else here. She’s back, and she’s hungry. Her talent and scope are extraordinary and I think we’re going to see some spectacular contributions from her to the world of music over the next decade.
So many songs on this album offer a variety of different things so I’ll include a couple that I think operate as a nice introduction to the album. Enjoy!