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On Saturday afternoon, my admiration for Esperanza Spalding was born anew.
My longtime readers (all three of them) will know that I have not been the world’s biggest Esperanza fan. In brief: I think she’s a far better bass player then she is a singer, but she focuses disproportionately on the latter, relying on “good enough” and her not-inconsiderable charm to carry her through. She has gotten better over her still-short career, both improving her vocal chops and gradually molding her material and approach to fit her strengths, but I’ve still greeted her every new project with apprehension. Intrigue, perhaps—-certainly in the case of her new project, Emily’s D+Volution—-but apprehension.
But when she performed at The Yards on Saturday, part of the D.C. Jazz Festival’s daylong program there, the apprehension was quickly subsumed by the intrigue. The Washington Post‘s Robin Givhan has already discussed Spalding’s fashion choices as Emily, Spalding’s alter-ego throwback to her own girlhood. But Givhan didn’t talk much about the music, which was heavy stuff, a funk-rock matrix with some hip-hop edges and some abrasive guitar and electric-bass textures. The music was also imbued with a kind of little-girl confidence, with the dominant motif of the opening song, “Good Lava,” being the lyric “Watch this pretty girl flow.” (In fact, due to some technical errors with the sound system, the band did a complete take of the song in which this phrase, as a backing vocal, was just about the only thing audible.)
The New York Times‘ Nate Chinen connected the funk-rock shredding to Black Rock Coalition. It certainly did have echoes of BRC founder Vernon Reid and his band Living Colour. But there were more radio-friendly parallels as well. Think Prince, for example (how could you not, with that flower outfit?), or Lenny Kravitz (her second song, “The One,” had certain commonalities with Kravitz’s “Let Love Rule”): artists who were making hit records when a young Spalding, born in 1984, would have been just discovering the pop-music scene. “Ebony and Ivy,” even with its titular Stevie Wonder evocation, was pure early-’90s Prince, even down to its growling electric guitar fills. (Spalding played handheld electric bass, making her look superficially like the stereotypical rock-star guitarist—-if you overlooked the glasses and braids.)
But the nuts and bolts of the music went deeper than retro-pop radio. Spalding has long been interested in jazz-rock fusion, and a great deal of that idiom’s melodic, rhythmic, and textural elements went into “Emily”‘s music. As for its harmonic language, Wayne Shorter (one of Spalding’s mentors) was an obvious and prevalent touchstone. And Spalding’s vocal acrobatics, which are becoming more daring even as she becomes more proficient, seemed drawn directly from 1970s Joni Mitchell, the height of her jazz experimentation. (Mitchell is also Prince’s hero, which might just bring us full circle.) It’s jazz all over, in other words, and with a fascinating palette. This is a serious, thoughtful, and—dare I say—unique blending of influences.
Spalding has always radiated potential as well as charisma. The latter was probably not well served by this outdoor on-the-green venue, especially with the technical problems at the beginning of her set. But the potential is becoming realized in a delightful and delightfully hip way. It’s exactly what one hopes to see from a developing artist… and, by the way, from a major jazz festival.
Photo by B.A. Arnwine