Esperanza Spalding is quite the multi-hyphenate: She’s a bassist, composer, singer, and arranger, as well as a winner of the Grammy for best new artist (she beat Justin Bieber in 2011) and one of the youngest people given a teaching position at Berklee College of Music. Her new album builds on that idea in a thrilling way, taking the experimental ideals that she learned as a student of jazz into new directions — heady funk, tongue-twisting soul, sparsely arranged confessional — that consistently surprise.
Framed as a reclamation of what Spalding calls “un-cultivated curiosity,” “Emily’s D+Evolution” (the title comes from her middle name) sounds, in moments, like Spalding is discovering where her creative impulse can take her in real time. It opens with “Good Lava,” which rides a thick riff and Spalding’s bravura vocal performance into space; the thick, low-end-heavy funk of that track returns on the twisty “Ebony and Ivy.” A call and response between Spalding’s “ooh-oohs” and a twitchy guitar riff opens “Rest in Pleasure,” which eventually opens into a love song that manages to be both anxious and luxurious. Spalding often places her bass playing in direct conversation with her vocal, which adds to the heady atmosphere; on “Judas,” her rapid-fire vocal trades licks with the bass, while the rumination on love and mortality “Farewell Dolly” puts Spalding’s soprano front and center, with the occasional Greek chorus threading around a muted low end.
“Emily’s D+Evolution” closes with a twisted take on “I Want It Now,” the petulant paean to selfishness sung by the spoiled Veruca Salt in “Charlie & the Chocolate Factory.” Spalding’s take is delirious, with thundering pianos eventually colliding with the titular demands in a thrilling way. In the movie, “I Want It Now” ends with Veruca being cast out of the confectioner’s paradise for being a “bad egg.” Here, though, placing Veruca Salt’s tantrum at the end of Spalding’s ambitious album completely reframes the song; the bars of chocolates and “roomfulls of laughter” she sings of aren’t just selfish desires, but ways to fuel her further explorations of those corners of the world that prove intriguing.
ESSENTIAL “Ebony and Ivy”Maura Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.