Esperanza Spalding’s alter ego Emily takes her in a power-rock direction
The jazz bassist enlisted David Bowie’s longtime collaborator Tony Visconti for her latest album, which she says was inspired by Cream and Joni Mitchell
Esperanza Spalding flowed across the stage as she played her fretless electric bass at Brooklyn’s BRIC House, clad in her “crazy lava outfit” with a gold-feathered headdress and swirling red-and-black patterned trousers.
The imagery fit the occasion as she sang Good Lava, the opening track of her new album Emily’s D + Evolution, her first in four years. The song is a metaphor for the untapped creative energy that erupted from within when she discovered her alter ego named Emily, who inspired her to take her music in a new direction.
Completing her power rock trio were electric guitarist Matthew Stevens and drummer Jason Tyson, who were joined by three yellow-clad backing singers-dancers. Spalding turned her Brooklyn show into performance art using such props as a stack of books on Ebony and Ivy, which alludes to the historic links between elite American universities and the slave trade.
The Brooklyn concert was a preview before a world tour of her new album (there are dates in South Korea and Japan in May), which marks her evolution as a singer-songwriter. It is less overtly jazzy than her four previous solo releases. She doesn’t play any acoustic bass or take solos.
“Emily is a name for a process … when you sense that there’s something pent up that you haven’t been developing,” says Spalding, 31, speaking at a cafe near her Brooklyn home. “It sometimes takes an eruption to open that up and that’s a lot of what Emily does.”
Her alter ego inspired Spalding to replace her trademark buoyant Afro with downward-pointing braids when performing, reflecting her desire to get in touch with “that fundamental ground floor of my expression”. She also wears over-sized plastic-framed glasses onstage.
After hearing David Bowie’s 2013 album The Next Day, Spalding contacted his long-time collaborator Tony Visconti, who was surprised to get a call asking him to co-produce the CD.
Visconti says that, like Bowie, Spalding is an artist willing to “break the mould all the time” rather than rest on past successes.
“This is a very adventurous record,” Visconti says. “This is showing people that you don’t have to follow what’s trendy.”
For Spalding, the album reflects a conscious decision to reset a career that has enjoyed dizzying success since she upset Justin Bieber, Drake and Mumford & Sons to become the first jazz performer to win the best new artist Grammy in 2011. Cast as the next great hope for jazz, she performed at the White House and the Academy Awards, and did magazine fashion shoots.
Spalding says she felt “out of balance” after winning two Grammys in 2013 for Radio Music Society, on which she fused R&B, neo-soul and hip-hop with jazz.
“There wasn’t enough time for me to do what’s important to me – practise and study and play,” she says.
Spalding decided to tour with other musicians, including an all-female acoustic jazz trio with pianist Geri Allen and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. She first imagined the character of Emily in the early morning hours before her birthday in October 2013.
Emily is also Spalding’s middle name, which she was known by growing up in Portland, Oregon. As a child, she was interested in acting and movement, and put on performances at home for her friends, but then became absorbed in studying her instrument.
She sees the process as one of devolution plus evolution.
“I don’t feel like it’s reaching back to childhood but incorporating aspects that have always been there that I never developed and using them to project forward.”
The music reaches back to the prog-rock, funk and jazz-rock fusion of the 1970s but reflects them through a modern prism of sounds.
Spalding says she was inspired by the 1960s British supertrio Cream – Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton, jazz devotees who evolved to playing psychedelic blues-rock. A friend’s gift of the 1976 Joni Mitchell album Hejira, featuring electric bassist Jaco Pastorius, also moved her.
“She definitely has the spirit of Jaco’s fretless playing and Joni’s beautiful, clear velvety voice,” says Visconti, who produced some of the tracks that evoke Mitchell most – Noble Nobles and Earth to Heaven. “She not only has the most impeccable technique on the bass, but the way she plays it is soulful and very melodic.”