Strange Brew Esperanza Spalding: Emily’s D+Evolution
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.”