It’s says a lot that there is barely a whiff of what’s commonly thought of as ‘traditional jazz’ on Esperanza Spalding’s third album till just over the halfway mark. And even then, it exists among a swirl of colourful sounds that have one true through-point: they are all wonderfully nonconformist. And nonconformity is the essence of Emily’s D+Evolution.
This is an album about upsetting expectations. Spalding spares not a moment in doing so with opener Good Lava, a rock song at roars with self-assured ferocity. This declaration is a shock, and understandably may initially be a turn off for some. But rather than change for change’s sake, this opener is an instance of how Spalding has augmented her sound, and it’s given the singer a strength of presence that had previous eluded her.
Take Judas, where a beautiful bass guitar rhythm, descending scales, evokes a botanical atmosphere. Or Rest in Pleasure: which blossoms into life with pulsating flourishes of psychedelic colour. Or Funk the Fear, where Spalding and band parade about with the fanciful exuberance of Parliament and the rhythmic flair of D’Angelo. Listen closely, and you can hear elements of smooth and cool jazz, but their layered among imaginative compositions and exotic instrumentation that feels quite the opposite of what a contemporary jazz album often sounds like – which is ostentatious, but too eccentric to appeal beyond jazz enthusiasts.
There are most than a few precedents for jazz artists striking out to appeal to more than their dedicated, but often niche, audience: take Miles Davis and his Bitches Brew album or the jazz fusion of Colosseum. Spalding’s own strand of nonconformity feels especially informed by the tenacious Janelle Monàe, who she’s previously collaborated with. Just like Monàe’s efforts, songs are adventurous and unusual – just tune into the closing number, which riffs on I Want It Now from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – but they also happen to be highly musical. Spalding’s delicate delivery of phrases, both sung and rapped, paint pictures of grace and, on the flip side, headstrong determination.
That determination shows itself clearest of all in the nonconformist direction of Emily’s D+Evolution. Spalding has veered away from her ‘comfortable’ sound to deliver an album of repeated rule-breaking. This is Spalding proclaiming that she does not want to be pigeonholed as a jazz musician any longer. Her musical record of reawakening has come at a time when audiences have embraced the left-field delights of Kamasi Washington.
Spalding’s third album is as different from Washington’s breakout success with The Epic as it is it from Gregory Porter’s Liquid Spirit. What it shares with the two of them is an effervescence and an expressiveness that fully absorbs your attention. Call it an alternative album, a fusion record, a work of female emancipation, anything but a ‘contemporary jazz record’, because history tells us that it would only do an album of this quality a disservice.