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Esperanza Spalding Is Letting Emily Be Emily

Esperanza Spalding Is Letting Emily Be Emily


"Devolution burns inside me," sings Esperanza Spalding on "One," a track from her upcoming album, Emily's D+Evolution. She's playing with the idea of a "modern mind" being afflicted by a "primal urge," and more broadly about how, sometimes, great strides in our development are inspired by less-enlightened versions of ourselves.

Yet speaking on the phone in December 2015, Spalding pronounces the album's title, "D-plus evolution" — as in, hardly earning a passing grade, but still managing to morph and change.

"Whether you want to see it as devolution and evolution, and the place where they co-exist without one diminishing the other, or could look at it like barely having the tools that you need, but having to move forward, and having to keep moving," Spalding says. "What do you do when you don't really have all the tools that you need, but you have to survive? And you need to grow and expand?

"I think that the best answer to that question of 'What do you do?' is, you get creative with the tools that you've got. I'm excited by that skill and the fruits of that intention — of that decision." The idea is central to Esperanza Emily's D+Evolution. (The album opener, "Good Lava," and its video are premiered above.)

Cover art to Emily's D+Evolution.
Concord Records

For the bassist and singer whose recordings heretofore have been overtly tinged by her jazz background, it's a markedly different sound. It's certainly not that Spalding has left her jazz practice behind — when reached on the phone, she was in the middle of a week-long run with the ACS Trio, also featuring Geri Allen on piano and Terri Lyne Carrington on drums. But at the core of Emily's D+Evolution is a different kind of trio — the rock 'n' roll power trio instrumentation of Spalding on electric bass and lead vocal, Matthew Stevens on guitar and either Justin Tyson or Karriem Riggins on drums.

There is, of course, another key collaborator: Emily. It's hard to say exactly who or what Emily is, though throughout our conversation, Spalding spoke of Emily as a sort of spirit-cum-muse that had taken hold of her — as if Spalding were merely fulfilling the vision of a character who was still revealing itself to her. I started by asking: "Who's Emily?" Eventually, an answer came to Spalding:

I can start by saying that my personal relationship to Emily is that this is a spirit, or a being, or an aspect who I met, or became aware of. I recognize that my job — and it's ongoing — is to be her arms and ears and voice and body. To say what she came to say, you know?

That's my relationship with Emily — I see her and am informed by her, and recognize her spirit and her perspective. I get to be the researcher, the implementer and executor of that vision. It feels like I'm a side-person to her — I'm her artistic development team.

Through that process, I'm getting to know her more. I ask to Emily, 'So, what did you come here to say? What do you want to do? What do you want to do that I didn't do? Who are you and why are you here?' It was such a distinct knock at the door.

I've read that Emily is your middle name. Is she a sort of childhood alter ego, or Id in you?

Esperanza Spalding's new album Emily's D+Evolution will be released March 4. Holly Andres/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Holly Andres/Courtesy of the artist

Esperanza Spalding's new album Emily's D+Evolution will be released March 4.

Holly Andres/Courtesy of the artist

I wouldn't say that. When I was a kid, people called me Emily rather than Esperanza even though my full name is Esperanza Emily Spalding. When I think about the connection with childhood, I think about it in relationship to this phrase that I got from [composer and saxophonist] Wayne Shorter that I think is really great. He says, 'We should use the best of the past like a flashlight into the future.' I really love that. In this case, Emily is exploring these ways of performing and means of expression that I was curious about as a kid — when I was still called Emily — that I never pursued or developed. I focused primarily on being an instrumentalist and studying music, and on my primary means of expression: composing and playing.

When I was a kid, I was really curious about acting. And I was interested in movement and dance. I wasn't good at either of those things — I didn't work at those things. And I was into creating experiences — I'd make little programs and little activities, and at the end there'd be a little dance routine. I'm realizing now that I was always really curious about inviting people into a space and sharing information that way. But I didn't have any context for it. It was just fun because I was homeschooled and lonely and bored, and I'd do things to get people to come over. In that sense, I see it as a flashlight into the future.

As an adult now, the reason I'm so excited about Emily is that Emily is about those things. Emily brings those modes of expression to the table, and now as a musician, as a composer, as a singer, it's like, "Oh, OK, so how do I learn — how do I incorporate that type of expression into what I know how to do so I can show Emily, and allow Emily to be her thing?"

The times I've seen you perform recently, it's been an elaborate stage presentation, starting even with Chamber Music Society a few years ago. I understand this project started as a live presentation? [Spalding has been touring the music since last summer.]

Yeah, kind of by necessity! The other day, I'm listening to an interview with Laurie Anderson, and she said she got a "sound picture" that was a memory of when she was a child in the hospital. She had a serious injury, and at that the time, all the children — whatever their injury was, if they were burn victims, or had a heart condition — were all in the same ward. So she was surrounded by kids in a lot of pain, and didn't consciously remember that she had heard those sounds. But later in life, she got this "sound picture," that basically encapsulates that experience.

When I first had an "image" of Emily, it was a snippet of a performance. I could get a sense of how it was being performed, but I didn't know how to do it. So for this last year, I had to work, and I knew that the only way that I'd find Emily is if we did it. I didn't have the right collaborators though, because a lot of this is out of my zone of expertise or experience. So finally, I've partnered with this director [Will Weigler] who understood what I was seeing because of his experience in theatre.

And next year, I hope we'll finally be able to present Emily the way that it should be presented ... the ways the songs are asking to be staged. It's such a relief, so gratifying to find the right partner-in-crime who does have the skill set to bring it out of the nebulous inspiration into the real.

So, Emily, the produced document you've created, sounds a little bit different than the music you've become known for. Or, that Esperanza Spalding has become known for anyway. It's not really a jazz record.

I agree. The sketches of the songs were obviously implying a different sound — I'll put it like that. When I heard the melody, or I heard the lyric, or I heard the chorus, I knew that I was going to have to hunt a little ... in new areas. It's like if you were writing a song for another person's project: It's obviously going to sound like you wrote it, but you have their sound in mind. So you'll make different decisions, because you want it to be something to match their aesthetic. That's how this process felt, arranging and completing and finishing the lyrics for this set of music. It was for Emily to perform within this context.

I knew it was loud, and I knew it was electric. I knew when it wasn't done, and I knew when it was. Beyond that, there wasn't much of a plan. I sought out those musicians, and talked about what we wanted to convey or achieve — energetically, or the story, or the arc of the song. Fortunately the musicians were so adventurous and open and masterful that I think we were able to do something that really honors Emily's aesthetic.

I was going to comment — all these musicians, like you, have risen through jazz settings. How do you feel like their contributions are informed by their versatility?

You want to fill this room from the top to the bottom, with writing on the wall, and you want it to be poetic, and you want it to be about various subjects. It's very nice to work with somebody who has a big dictionary or thesaurus. It's a very rigorous "training program" to become a jazz musician, you know? You come in contact with a lot of sounds, a lot of different textures and chords. And of course, if you're listening to a current [jazz] artist and the new material that they're making, it incorporates a lot of other "genres," other modes or pedagogies of musical vernacular. So I just feel like working with people who have a really broad vocabulary and a really broad palette of sound is the best way to go.

Everyone who is in the band learned the language through the "school of jazz," but are in touch with a wide array of musical dialects. There's more to paint with; there's more to write from. ... It makes for a much more interesting read when you're lying in bed looking up at the walls.

One of the dialects that came to mind when I was listening to it was, well, rock music. It reminded me you have experience making rock music — before you went to Berklee [College of Music] and all that, you were in a band called Noise For Pretend. Do you feel like you tapped into that at all for this?

I wouldn't think, "tapped into it" — to me, that implies consciously looking into it and drawing from it. I think of Cream. (I wouldn't necessarily call [Noise For Pretend] a rock band — I mean, I guess it's categorized as rock.) That trio feels very like a close inspiration. We all love Cream. Actually, they were all jazz musicians too — Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. I'm sure the bass player used to play upright, and we all know about Ginger Baker's obsession with the jazz drummers. ... So I really identify with that sound a lot. If I'm thinking of them I wouldn't say Noise For Pretend was a rock band.

I try not to think about that very much because I was so young. It's sort of embarrassing when I hear those songs. But it's true, so you can't be embarrassed about it. That was really what I thought and meant at that time. It becomes part of the armature of everything you do. I was just so excited to be in a band. I got paid to play gigs. I thought that Christian [Cochran] and Ben [Workman], the other musicians, were just like the coolest guys ever. I totally looked up to them and admired them. I loved that they treated me like a grownup, you know? I was just 100% there for that experience. I really trusted them, that if they were asking me to write these songs, they must be good enough to do in public. That was a really nice sort of experience to have — to be creating and not really having any concept of judging it. I just assumed that if we played it, and I liked it, it was good enough.

In the context of Emily, though, I don't know what to say about it, other than 'It happened.'

The song that's coming out is "Good Lava." What's that about?

Well, I'll put it like this. I was talking to my mom about education, about teachers. My mom taught briefly. I think it's such an incredible talent, and a generous and compassionate field. She was telling me this story — after the song was already written, so I felt like I had intuitively hit on something important — about a woman in the '70s or '80s who had developed a curriculum that was based on art and creativity. The woman is summing up what she had learned from this experience of working with troubled kids and watching them really flourish with an arts-based curriculum. She said what she'd observed in these little kids that she thinks is universal to all people is that there's this vibrant life force, this powerful energy, just boiling and burbling and flowing in every person. It's got to get out, expressed, like pressure, like lava in a mountain. It can be a destructive release — or it can be a constructive release. As she opened and made way for the creative vent, the destructive vent tended to atrophy. Conversely, without that creative outlet, the creative vent will atrophy, and the only way for that energy to get out is through the destructive vent. But it has to be given the release. It's not like that'll just happen. It's a conscious decision to welcome that force — to welcome it and allow it to flow and do what it does. And that was so affirming. I experience that too — I do feel this energy inside, and I always have. That's one way of looking at "Good Lava."