I really didn’t know what to expect walking into the Theater of Living Arts. I had decided against listening to Esperanza Spalding’s most recent album, Emily’s D+Evolution, if only to be particularly vulnerable to the music that night. It was one of the rare moments I could get completely swept up into an artist’s performance without having to consider how the stage and studio sounds might align. Spalding walked onto the stage with an uncharacteristic meekness. She was dressed in a drab cloak with a funky looking curly fro; her backup-up singers (Rachael Duddy, Starr Busby, and Corey King) were equally dreary in gray pantsuits more akin to Dr. Evil than jazz vocalists. But this was only temporary. For an album as gaudy as Emily’s D+Evolution, it was only a matter of time before the eyesore grays came off.

It happened quickly.

Spalding broke out of her cloak and faux-fro to reveal the two-strand twists gracing the album’s cover. Dressed in an all-white jumpsuit, adorned with a paper crown reminiscent of Max’s childlike yet kingly halo in Where the Wild Things Are, Spalding transformed into a jazz cosmonaut traversing the distant planets of rock and prog.

Engines revved on “Good Lava,” inviting the audience into her kaleidoscopic cockpit. “Come brave me,” she summoned us. Justin Tyson’s drum ambulated, driving our steps towards the door. We blasted off with “Elevate or Operate,” heading somewhere backward in time. Emily’s D+Evolution presses listeners to question what it means to be evolved. What gets shed in our uniform march towards civilization? Inquiries like this always have some pushback. “Honey, don’t try to turn this thing around!” Spalding sang, voicing the concerned parties. Spalding played out the struggle her spirit-muse, Emily, undergoes as she attempted to take us through the process of devolving. Her backup singers playing Gepetto aimed to control her movements. The choreography was playful and pointed. Spalding loosened herself from their invisible strings, appendages flailing frivolously like a remixed version of Michael Jackson’s Scarecrow in “The Wiz” musical; breaking through the threads of mainstream control is crucial to experiencing care-freedom.

With walls of canonical texts labeled “Good books,” being built around her, Spalding’s bass dove into a pit of anxiety. Lucas Del Calvo’s aerial electric guitar signaled the fluctuating feeling of elitism and intellectualism on “Ebony And Ivy,” where Spalding’s lyricism is showcased most poignantly. Social intelligence, or “the sage” that “grows on the mountain,” can only be attained “’round the fountain of unfiltered truth.” It was a fascinating moment because of the many racially classed dynamics that made up not just the audience of The Living Arts Theater but also modern jazz audiences more generally. Classified as high art, modern jazz is now a style reserved for elite intellectuals. But Spalding posits that in order for audiences to understand the communicative truth of jazz, they must set aside their “taste for high-class feeling.” We’ve made it “hard to grow outside,” becoming complacent with building walls of stagnant texts around us in lieu of real human understanding. In this wondrous juxtaposition, Spalding played on the form-breaking jazz-rock fusion to put forth her radical message of evolution in reverse.

Esperanza Spalding’s light voice against the heavy tones of her bass is just one of many heavy contrasts found in her music. Her debut album, Junjo, introduced us to her bouncy, conversational bass as she took on jazz classics like Chick Corea’s “Humpty Dumpty” and Jimmy Rowles’ “The Peacocks.” That album lacked lyrics, opting for breakneck, non-lyrical voicing mimicking the energetic styling of her bass. It wasn’t until her second album, Esperanza, that audiences could appreciate her abilities as a songwriter. Keeping with her rhythmic stream of conscious, Spalding’s a poetic composer. Her lines break form, spilling over meter with rapid enjambment-filled storytelling. The albums that followed featured a bit of a slower pace, especially Radio Music Society, in which Spalding takes her time to critique social ills ranging from the prison industrial complex (“Land of the Free”) and feelings of Black inadequacy in a white world (“Black Gold”). The album rang more jazz-pop than her previous albums, but the fusion and Spalding’s technical brilliance kept it fresh.

Emily’s D+Evolution acts as Spalding’s progression into experimentalism that oscillates from whimsical to raucous. She energetically paced the stage under the influence of her wild, seemingly endless, breaking and reforming of both jazz and rock chords – often interpolating Queen-like rock jams with Ornette Coleman-like jazz threads. As drummer Justin Tyson smacked a drum line snare in the opening of “Funk the Fear,” Spalding played off his call with knee-bending convulsive bass licks. Esperanza was weightless over a break beat, making for an effortless dialogue between bass, snare and Calvo’s streaky electric. The band’s fun was infectious. Spalding and The Professional Band made it cool to be wacky, generating a sense of ease and utter silliness.

The genius of jazz is in its ability to communicate multi-directional messages. Spalding’s performance, from its crowd-servicing beginnings, to its praise and worship finish, spoke to the perils of getting caught up in appearances. Appealing to the explorative child in all of us, Esperanza Spalding does away with the pretensions of modern jazz form, urging us to look back to a time when jazz was legitimately for everybody. That night, Spalding left us with a poem – her rendition of William Blake’s “The Fly,” which she renamed “Little Fly.” Stripped of her bass and the backing instrumentals, she vocalized the chords using stretchy tonal utterances. Echoing the release of physical, musical and intellectual subjectivities, Spalding reached a fearless crest with the lines “Then am I/ A happy fly/ If I live/ Or if I die.”

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