Album of the Week: Esperanza Spalding's 'Emily's D+Evolution'

On March 7, 2016

Every week, we tell you about a new album we think you should spend time with. This week’s album is Esperanza Spalding's Emily's D+Evolution

If you’re not a jazzbo who only listens to the hottest in up-and-coming jazz vocalists, your only exposure to Esperanza Spalding prior to this was likely when her 2010 album, Chamber Music Society, pissed off the Belieber Battalion when she snagged Best New Artist over Justin Bieber. Bieber’s fans responded by vandalizing Spalding’s Wikipedia article, and by making Spalding a trending topic globally. However, there was something that was dramatically underreported from that night: Spalding also beat Drake for Best New Artist.

I’d be lying if I said I actually took the time to check Spalding out after that shocking Grammy win, and I’d be lying if I said I’ve given her much thought since then. Which I admit now, since I’ve fallen head over heels for her new album, Emily’s D+Evolution, was clearly a mistake. Where her other albums emphasized Spalding’s virtuosic jazz bass and were clearly aiming for dominating the soundtrack of your local hipster coffee joint—which could be playing music that is not anywhere near as good as Spalding’s jazz albums, it should be noted-- Emily’s is a genre exploration that finds Spalding as the best funk band leader since George Clinton, and establishes Spalding not only as the leader of nu-jazz vocalists, but positions her as a contemporary of artists as varied as Janelle Monae and Thundercat.

The breadth of styles Spalding hits here is the most immediately alluring thing about Emily’s. Spalding and her band can nail aggro-funk on “Funk on Fear” before dropping away to a flitting chorus that harkens back to Spalding’s past jazz work. Lightly floating tracks like “Unconditional Love” can exist in the same space as the acid-folk of “Earth to Heaven.” The sparse “Farewell Dolly” can lead into the downright proggy “Elevate or Operate.” Whirling vocal harmonies that build like waves on the soft rock “One,” fit in perfectly with the torch song of “Change Us.” The fact that she covers Veruca Salt’s song from Willy Wonka here seems normal somehow.

Spalding will probably forever be shunted off to the 3-foot “Other Music” section of your local big box retail store, and she might never do anything more high profile than snatching a Grammy up out of the hands of Justin “Young Haircut” Bieber. But the beauty of the record industry being smaller, though, is that even formerly unapologetic coffeehouse jazzers can break their mold and make records that are as sonically adventurous and fun to spend time in as Emily’s D+Evolution. Spalding is proof that you can follow your muse wherever it takes you, and sometimes, it leads to the best music of your career.

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Andrew Winistorfer

Andrew Winistorfer is Vinyl Me, Please’s Classics and Country Director, and an editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need In Your Collection and The Best Record Stores In The United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 20 VMP releases, and co-produced Nat Turner Rebellion's Laugh to Keep From Crying. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

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