A self-taught musical prodigy, Esperanza Spalding’s rise to become the darling of the contemporary jazz world was a swift one. After three successful albums released between 2006 and 2010, she picked up a Grammy in 2011 for Best New Artist, beating the favourite Justin Bieber. The uproar in the aftermath of her first Grammy win caused Spalding to pause and reflect upon her position in the industry, deciding after 2012’s Radio Music Society to take some time-out from the music world to reconnect with herself.
Judging by Emily’s D+Evolution, it was time very well spent. Her fifth album to date, it’s the sound of an artist who is making music with a new found creative freedom, completely uninhibited by the expectations of others. Ditching the upright bass in favour of an electric six-string and fronting a tighter group of musicians which includes jazz drummer/hip-hop producer Karriem Riggins, Emily’s D+Evolution is a dramatic but very welcome departure from the soulful, Latin-inspired contemporary jazz of her previous albums.
Her jazz roots are still very much present, but they’ve been thrown together with a host of styles that includes funk, R&B, cosmic soul, prog-rock and musical theatre to create one of the most exciting and unpredictable 45-minutes of music you’re likely to hear this year. It’s an album that’s both forward thinking and still very much tied to its influences, which includes the likes of Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, George Clinton, Prince, Joni Mitchell, Janelle Monáe, Erykah Badu and even some Dirty Projectors.
Emily’s D+Evolution was formulated as concept album, with Spalding communicating via her alter ego Emily, representing her as a young girl. Through Emily she re-examines issues relating to personal freedom (love, race, gender, education, creativity) from a fresh perspective. Spalding’s lyrical and vocal performance is poetic and beautiful throughout, but it’s her new approach to composition that really stands out, with each track existing in its own space but tied together into one wonderful whole.
The jerky, angular funk-rock of opener “Good Lava” sets the tone, perhaps testing some older fans, but those who stick around are thoroughly rewarded. There’s the shifting “Elevate Or Operate”, the R&B-inspired funk of “Funk The Fear” and the compelling “Earth To Heaven”. Spalding also pops with up some more conventional numbers, with the atmospheric guitar and gorgeous vocals/bass combo of “Unconditional Love” just one highlight among many. The jazzy pop of “Judas” and the superb “One” also deserve a mention.
Emily’s D+Evolution is by far Spalding’s most ambitious work to date and she pulls it off with complete confidence, creating an album that’s both challenging and accessible. Alongside Spalding, longtime David Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti serves as co-producer after recently working on the Starman’s final album, a record which also featured jazz musicians playing primarily non-jazz music. There may not be many albums which come close to topping Blackstar this year but Emily’s D+Evolution could certainly be one of them.
Top Tracks: Good Lava; Unconditional Love; Judas; Earth To Heaven; One; Rest In Pleasure; Elevate and Operate; Funk The Fear
Released: 4th March 2016
Genres: Contemporary Jazz, Funk, R&B, Cosmic Soul, Art Rock
Label: Concord Records
Producers: Esperanza Spalding and Tony Visconti