When Esperanza Met Emily

Esperanza Spalding showing two sides of herself PHOTO: HOLLY ANDRES

A few facts were striking after Esperanza Spalding took the stage of Brooklyn’s BRIC House in early March. Gone was the bassist and singer’s soft cloud of an Afro, tamed now into long braids. Oversized glasses largely obscured her lovely features. She wore crown that looked as if stolen from a cool kid’s birthday party. She seemed in perpetual motion, pausing only to bear down on a particularly challenging line on her fretless electric bass. Her music, now centered on a plugged-in trio, sounded louder and more assertive than at any point in her decade-long career.
This was the album release celebration for “Emily’s D+Evolution” (Concord Records), Ms. Spalding’s boldest leap yet. During “Good Lava,” between power chords, she sang, “See this pretty girl/ Watch this pretty girl flow.”
Audiences have been doing largely that ever since Ms. Spalding’s unexpected 2011 Best New Artist Grammy Award left fans of the rapper Drake and the popster Justin Bieber incredulous. Then, Ms. Spalding was known mostly as a jazz instrumentalist (she’s still that too, working regularly in an acoustic trio with pianist Geri Allen and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington). Some heralded her Grammy as jazz’s triumph, which to some degree it was.
If Ms. Spalding, 31, has since walked a gilded path—performing at the Academy Awards and at the Obama White House; working closely with jazz royalty such as pianist Herbie Hancock and her closest mentor, saxophonist Wayne Shorter—she seems now to have found her own road.
She credits the Emily of her album’s title—her middle name, which most people called her while growing up in Portland, Ore. She’s not so much channeling her inner child, she says, but rediscovering “the innocent passion I once felt for poetry and dance and loud sounds” through a character that is more so channeling her. The project calls for creative staging (she enlisted theatrical director Will Weigler) and has developing gradually throughout her adopted hometown of New York City. She tried out some songs two years ago in performance at the 92nd Street Y. She debuted the track “One” during a 2015 episode of “Jimmy Kimmel Live” taped at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She’ll tinker further with her formula on April 14 at Harlem’s Apollo Theater.
My interview with her in The Wall Street Journal is here. Here are two excerpts:
Is Emily a younger Esperanza Spalding?
Well, Emily is my middle name, what people used to call me. But this isn’t a story about me as a child. She’s really an invitation to remember, or not to forget, the motives behind what intrigued or delighted us before we knew what we were and weren’t. When I was much younger, my guiding light came from the passions I had for poetry and dance and performance. I remember that as pure sensation. That sensation, the curiosity it produces, moves me forward now. I like to use the expression, “Using the best of the past as a flashlight to the future.” That’s a quote from Wayne [Shorter]. I’ve been talking to Wayne about this project since it first came to mind.
As a musician, what’s the main difference between improvising in a jazz trio and the way you create and perform for this project?
Playing jazz involves sort of abandoning your individuality and contributing to this weird thing that’s being co-created and arranged in real time. It’s a magical experience that sometimes involves using the structure of a composition as a container, or working without even that structure. I will never lose my love for that. This project is different because it’s the same songs each time, and we’ve really worked out arrangements. So we’re looking for new discoveries about Emily’s story, and new ways to express the ideas behind her story and its subtext.

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