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.
To everyone but her, it seems.
Now 31 and one of the most recognizable figures in music, Spalding could have released pleasantly effervescent vocal-jazz albums for decades. But 2012's R&B-leaning "Radio Music Society" along with some unfettered sets with one of the true celestial explorers jazz in Wayne Shorter hinted that Spalding had more adventurous destinations in mind.
Enter "Emily's D+Evolution," Spalding's fifth album and something of a reinvention of any idea we might have had about Spalding's place on the musical map.
Pronounced "d plus evolution" and suffused with Stevie Wonder funk and zigzagging prog-rock, the album is an artistic statement album with a capital "A," complete with an alter ego and theatrical flourishes that hint toward something of a funk-rock opera about death, spirituality and personal identity. Not the sort of stuff that typically comes with a two-drink minimum.
The shift is underscored with Spalding's appearance as well. Gone is her familiar cloud of hair, and in its place are long braids and brightly colored glasses — the better, presumably, to give life to "Emily," Spalding's middle name and what she calls the spirit of the record. Not so coincidentally for an album that features performance art and new personas, "Emily" also features some production from David Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti, who turns up on half of the album's tracks.
Unlike some of Spalding's earlier work, the album might not be the immediate charmer that was her Grammy breakthrough "Chamber Music Society," but the more time spent with "Emily" reveals it as her most fascinating recording yet.
Full of crunchy guitars from Matthew Stevens — heard on similarly genre-blind releases from Spalding's generational contemporaries in jazz Christian Scott and Ben Williams – and vocals that recall Joni Mitchell's jazz-tilted explorations, the album surges past decades-old models of jazz-rock fusion and finds something more idiosyncratic, and a lot richer.
The slow-burning single, "Unconditional Love," may be the record's most approachable moment with its slowly ascending chorus, but the more far afield Spalding ventures, the more magnetic the record becomes. Opening track "Good Lava" sets the tone with Stevens' guitar drive, and "Rest in Pleasure," a track Spalding produced, finds her breathy vocals layered atop each other to frame a wistful, romantic melody.
Spalding's multitracked voice often acts as her own Greek chorus, near-chanting to start the dark churn of "Earth to Heaven" and "Ebony and Ivy," which argues for the essential value of the natural world book ended by a breathless spoken-word section that gives way to an near-operatic chorus.
"Noble Nobles" directly invokes Mitchell with its bright acoustic guitar and Spalding's percolating bass, and the thick-grooved "Funk the Fear" at first threatens to pay too-direct tribute to Prince and P-Funk, but its tangled structure and stutter-stop shifts keep the song planted firmly in Spalding's own turf.
Does closing the record with a defiant cover of Veruca Salt's bratty "I Want It Now" from "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" underscore Spalding's creative goals too boldly? Maybe, but if that means hearing more surprises in just who she is, it's hard to complain.