Esperanza Spalding has gone and gotten weird and it’s the best thing she could have done.
Esperanza Spalding has gone and gotten weird and it’s the best thing she could have done. Spalding has mentioned in recent interviews that for this record she wanted to capture the childlike side of creativity—feel an impulse, follow it. And it shows. Some of the rhythmic and melodic ideas should clash and burn but instead they majestically collide and evolve into something brave and new.
Co-producer Tony Visconti has helped shaped his share of unconventional records, the most recent of those being David Bowie’s jazz-tinted swan song Blackstar. It’s that spirit of invention that presides over pieces such as “Judas” and “Good Lava.” Those aren’t just two of the album’s better songs but two of the best indicators of Spalding’s stylistic restlessness and musical acumen.
“Good Lava” sounds like something that might have crawled up from Carla Bley’s piano in the early 1970s before mating with the music of uptown NYC circa 1992. If “Judas” calls anything to mind other than this very moment it may be Joni Mitchell’s brilliant dalliances with Jaco Pastorius but with a slightly sweeter taste. “Good Lava,” “Judas” and “Earth to Heaven” ask us to decide which Spalding we like best: the virtuosic bassist whose rumbling lines seem to work faster than the human mind and ear can comprehend, or the vocalist who consistently shows remarkable restraint and power while delivering unconventional lyrics and melodies.
The good news is that we can have both. These aspects of Spalding’s music shine with equal brightness “Rest in Pleasure,” a track destined to become one of the artist’s most enduring, or “Funk the Fear,” a piece that has some seriously unmitigated audacity. In fact, it’s that audaciousness that’s probably Spalding’s most endearing quality. If in the past she sometimes appeared to be a shrinking flower those days are gone. She is witty and commanding and everything we could want from a formidable musical force like she.
Although Spalding is moving listeners deeper into the future, she doesn’t hesitate to pause and give respect to greats from the past. There’s a strangeness here that recalls Stevie Wonder in his most brave and groundbreaking moments or Todd Rundgren in those days when he threw caution to the wind and made the studio as much of an instrument as a guitar. But that’s just inspiration. This record is Spalding through and through, and she’s alive, sizzling and smiling.
It helps that she’s joined by a band of crack cohorts, including guitarist Matthew Stevens who reimagines the possibilities of that instrument on a per-bar basis. Drummer Karriem Riggins provides rhythms that are consistently inventive and sometimes unsettling in all the right ways, though Justin Tyson’s work behind the kit on “Right Now” is strictly and delightfully outside the parameters of the norm.
There is, of course, the question of whether we’re to receive this as a collection of songs or one continuous piece with a variety of movements within. It’s a strategy that Spalding has taken up in her live performances, stringing the night together as one continuous piece of music that is relentless in its beauty and inventiveness. It ultimately doesn’t matter if you treat the album as a collection of songs or as one continuous piece because there’s no way you’ll want to separate ‘em. It’s too much of a good, groovy thing that’s going on. Your best option is to sit back and hear it from end to end with multiple layers washing over you like brilliant waves of love.