On her fifth solo album, Esperanza Spalding asks, what if her younger self had not gone on to pursue jazz greatness and instead embraced her other influences? Enter Emily, the middle name Spalding was called as a child. Emily is electric and amplified, patterned and braided. She is Esperanza in Clark Kent glasses, a loose disguise signifying only a different presentation of her proven musicianship.
Emily's D+Evolution is not a pure jazz project in any sense, but instead an assortment of funk and rock records clearly drawn up by players with underlying jazz backgrounds. Production was shared between Spalding and Tony Visconti, with guitarist Matthew Stevens and drummer Karriem Riggins performing the bulk of the band duties. While the complete D+Evolution presentation involves a theatrical live show that's apparently aided by having read Sidney Cox's Indirections: For Those Who Want to Write, most of us will be experiencing the album in its audio form.
The common thread across the dozen tracks is perpetual motion within song structures. Songs like "Unconditional Love" and the single "Earth To Heaven" lock into compelling grooves before Spalding's characteristic vocals lift us in dreamy chord progressions. "Rest In Pleasure" is a particular treat, as it dips between sparse, gentle verses and double-timed distorted guitar choruses. "Elevate Or Operate" lands the listener right in the middle of an out of control carousel before a calm, in-control Emily sings, "Honey don't interrupt me, I'm trying to turn this thing around." With its sharp-tongued introduction and nature theme, "Ebony And Ivy" brings to mind David Axelrod's Earth Rot in what is one of the album's more interesting moments.
Emily's D+Evolution is a tough album to get a full grasp on. It's not a neat alter ego side project; rather than going the Chris Gaines route, Esperanza Spalding is again flexing her range, showing that her playing style and voice can find a home in any genre. There are moments here where she falls into a nice pocket that the listener might wish she'd remain in for a little while longer.
In interviews, Spalding has indicated the "D+" refers to a barely passing grade, having only a basic toolset with which to get by. That is a quaint idea, but you can't hide the jazz virtuoso behind a few amps and pronounced drums. Any evaluator would recognize the skill needed to stitch together such broad ideas, whether they belong to Grammy-owning Esperanza or adolescent Emily. (Concord)