Strange Brew Esper­anza Spald­ing: Emily’s D+Evo­lu­tion



Mul­ti­col­ored, crazy-in­ven­tive mu­sic is Esper­anza Spald­ing’s m.o., but she takes it over the top with her new stage show, Emily’s D+Evo­lu­tion. Al­ways play­ful, vir­tu­osic, and mu­si­cally fear­less, the Gram­my­win­ning singer and bassist has worked with New York theater/stage di­rec­tor Mau­reen Towey to fash­ion an ex­pe­ri­ence that is as much about move­ment and the­atri­cal­ity as it is about mu­sic.

The tunes re­late to Spald­ing’s child­hood in­ter­ests in drama and po­etry. “We will be stag­ing the songs as much as we play them, us­ing char­ac­ters, video, and the move­ment of our bod­ies,” Spald­ing says in tour ma­te­ri­als. “‘Emily’ is my mid­dle name, and I’m us­ing this fresh per­sona as my in­ner nav­i­ga­tor. My hope for this group is to cre­ate a world around each song; there are a lot of juicy themes and sto­ries in the mu­sic.”

She brings the Emily show to the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter on Thurs­day, Aug. 6, as the last act of the 2015 New Mexico Jazz Fes­ti­val. Aid­ing and abet­ting her are her trio-mates, gui­tarist Matt Stevens and drum­mer Justin Tyson, as well as Corey King (back­ground vo­cals and key­boards) and Na­dia Washington (back­ground vo­cals and guitar).

In a con­ver­sa­tion with Pasatiempo, she said the pro­ject is “such a won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence,” but she also ac­knowl­edged that she has been un­sure how it would be re­ceived, pre­sum­ably be­cause of its un­con­ven­tion­al­ity. “It’s lovely to work with peo­ple who — both the band and the au­di­ence — are so flex­i­ble and down to try some­thing. Even if peo­ple don’t quite know what we’re do­ing, I’ve felt a gen­eral sense of to­geth­er­ness, and that’s kind of the most you can hope for as an artist. It’s not even if peo­ple say they like it or not. I’ve gone to lots of things that I re­ally ap­pre­ci­ated and I felt like I un­der­stood the in­ten­tion and I was grate­ful for the artis­tic en­deavor, even though I didn’t per­son­ally like the taste of it. Like okra. I don’t like okra, but I can ap­pre­ci­ate some­one who’s a good chef and they make a dish with okra. I’m not go­ing to like it, though. Any­way, it’s like that.”

Born in Port­land, Ore­gon, Spald­ing taught her­self to play vi­o­lin as a child and per­formed with the Cham­ber Mu­sic So­ci­ety of Ore­gon. Then, at age fif­teen, she dis­cov­ered the acous­tic bass and took to it like an ea­gle to sky. She is a strong, cre­ative bassist and pos­sesses a lovely and ath­letic singing abil­ity. Spald­ing was lead vo­cal­ist for the early-2000s Ore­gon pop groups Noise for Pre­tend and Blan­ket Mu­sic. She formed her own trio and per­formed with bands led by sev­eral renowned jazz mu­si­cians — bassist Char­lie Haden, gui­tarist Pat Metheny, sax­o­phon­ist Joe Lo­vano, and vi­o­lin­ist Regina Carter — be­fore re­leas­ing her first al­bum, Junjo, in 2005.

That record­ing de­but fea­tures three orig­i­nal songs and cov­ers of tunes by Jimmy Rowles and Chick Corea. Well-ren­dered for such a very young mu­si­cian [she was twenty-two when Junjo was re­leased], it’s quite no­table, con­sid­er­ing the cer­tainty of her con­cept and clar­ity of her vi­sion.” On the ti­tle song and other tracks, she demon­strates an amaz­ing flu­ency in scat singing — just one of her vo­cal tal­ents.

By the time of her 2008 fol­low-up, Esper­anza, she was on the fac­ulty of Bos­ton’s Berklee Col­lege of Mu­sic. In 2010 she re­leased Cham­ber Mu­sic So­ci­ety with her band­mate drum­mer Terri Lyne Car­ring­ton and guest vo­cal­ists Milton Nasci­mento and Gretchen Par­lato, plus a vi­o­lin­ist, vi­o­list, and cel­list. In 2012 came Ra­dio Mu­sic So­ci­ety, fea­tur­ing more than a dozen horn play­ers, as well as drum­mers Car­ring­ton, Billy Hart, and Jack DeJohnette.

Also in 2012, she re­ceived the Smith­so­nian Amer­i­can In­ge­nu­ity Award and per­formed at the 84th Academy Awards. She won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 2011 — not only a sur­pris­ing up­set win over Justin Bieber but the first such award ever claimed by a jazz mu­si­cian. She has per­formed for Pres­i­dent Barack Obama at the White House and at a No­bel Peace Prize cer­e­mony.

With all that un­der her young belt, Spald­ing (who played the Len­sic in 2013 with Car­ring­ton and pi­anist Geri Allen) is em­pha­siz­ing play in Emily’s

D+Evo­lu­tion. “You gotta feel free to play,” she says in a video clip about the pro­ject. “We are putting on a play, sort of, in­flu­enced a lot by sur­re­al­ist po­ets [and the] ex­per­i­men­tal theater move­ment in New York.”

Asked about that, she launched into a stream-of-con­scious­ness ex­po­si­tion: “You know it’s wild how you read like some sur­re­al­ist po­etry, and at first read, you might read a line and think like, OK, that was ran­dom. That doesn’t even, like . . . al­right, like it fills in the time, you know, like aes­thet­i­cally I see an as­so­ci­a­tion, or there’s some com­bi­na­tion of as­so­ci­a­tions, or I like the al­lit­er­a­tion or what­ever, and then you might look at it again a few min­utes later or a few days or a few months or a few years later, and some­thing else is hap­pen­ing in your life and you think, oh, huh! OK, that’s go­ing to cap­ture some­thing that was un­cap­turable. OK, it’s speak­ing to a sen­sa­tion — be it men­tal, phys­i­cal, emo­tional, cir­cum­stan­tial — it’s speak­ing to a sen­sa­tion. And I think, what I hope is that in this pro­ject we cre­ate a lot of lines like that.

“As an au­di­ence mem­ber, you could have a lot of ex­pe­ri­ences like that in this per­for­mance, be­cause we’re def­i­nitely play­ing with lan­guage and we’re play­ing with our bod­ies and cul­tural tra­di­tions, and with the el­e­ments of per­for­mance.”

For her Emily’s D+Evo­lu­tion shows, Spald­ing wears in­ter­est­ing, brightly col­ored cloth­ing and big white eye­glasses. “It’s good to have them back,” she said. “I wore glasses when I was a kid. I’m sup­posed to wear them all the time.”

Re­gard­ing her doc­u­mented love for Cream, the 1960s power trio, she said, “Heeeeyyyyy. Emily is my mid­dle name, and Esper­anza Emily Spald­ing is

into that. Cream is so fun, I can’t even tell you. I love that stuff, and Matt and Justin and I have to con­tain our­selves and har­ness that energy into the songs.”

The songs Esper­anza Emily and her band­mates shape on­stage for her cur­rent pro­ject (which will be recorded for an al­bum to be re­leased this fall) are char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally dy­namic — and fun. “It’s great and ev­ery­body on the stage is great and it’s great mu­sic and I don’t know how to ex­plain to you what we’re do­ing. We barely know what we’re do­ing. We just know that we found a ver­sion up to this point that’s re­ally strong, and so we’re work­ing off of that and evolv­ing it ev­ery day.”

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