Esperanza Spalding may be physically svelte, but her soul is large and, like Whitman’s, contains multitudes. That much was clear Tuesday at the Citi Shubert Theatre, where Spalding performed songs of herself — or rather of her alter ego, Emily (her real-life middle name) — from her wildly inventive recent album, “Emily’s D+Evolution.”
Spalding had field-tested this material at the Paradise last year, and it was evident even then that the four-time Grammy winner’s pop powers continue to grow. Her singing and songwriting have gained force and confidence. The new project adds a gratifying layer of theatricality to live performances, while the stripped-down backing band keeps a tight focus on Spalding’s considerable, wide-ranging talents.
The Shubert set opened with backup singers Emily Elbert, Shawna Corso, and Corey King — all attired in white with yellow neckties — filing robotlike onto the right side of the stage, and drummer Justin Tyson and guitarist Matthew Stevens taking their places on the left. Spalding, decked out in dark gray dress, red pants, and black crown, and electric bass in hand, made a dramatic entrance climbing over a curtain, and launched into “Good Lava,” the album-opening celebration of uninhibited creativity.
All 12 tunes from the recording got an airing, but their sequence was shuffled, enhancing a narrative arc while also withholding hook-oriented potential hits “Funk the Fear” and “Unconditional Love” until toward the end. The most theatrical pieces came early; backing vocalists recited lyrics in rapid-fire unison with the leader on “Ebony and Ivy,” during which Spalding pored through books from an onstage bookcase and received her own yellow necktie in a graduation ceremony. Elbert played with puppets while Spalding sang at an upright piano on “Elevate or Operate,” and King and Corso took turns being comforted for romantic disappointment on “Rest in Pleasure,” “Judas,” and “Farewell Dolly.”
Spalding’s singing and writing called to mind Joni Mitchell’s sophistication on “Noble Nobles,” “One,” and “Judas,” and her prominent bass was reminiscent of Mitchell’s onetime collaborator Jaco Pastorius. The night’s highlight was the closing “Unconditional Love,” with Stevens and Tyson, joined by Spalding, climactically unleashing their instrumental chops.
Encore covers included Anthony Newley’s “I Want It Now” (from her album) and David Bowie’s “If You Can See Me” (from his 2013 album “The Next Day”). The latter offered sly tribute to Bowie’s longtime associate Tony Visconti, who helped produce Spalding’s album, while paying overt homage to another bold explorer whose artistry contained multitudes.
At Citi Shubert Theatre, April 12
Bill Beuttler can be reached at email@example.com.