Esperanza Spalding ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’ (Concord) 3/5

esperanza-spaldingBassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding returns with an album aimed firmly at pop chart recognition and in this intent former Bowie producer Tony Visconti is enlisted. Sadly, from a jazz perspective the instrumental virtuosity we have come to be accustomed to has been relegated to a distant secondary role in favour of a prominent rock guitar with folk elements surfacing in the vocals. The problem with this new approach is that Spalding is simply too complex and sophisticated a musician to suddenly carry off this major shift which risks alienating regular fans, and one has to seriously question the decision to pair Visconti with her and the suitability of the former with a musician who normally straddles jazz, soul and funk grooves. Spalding seems to have undergone a stylistic change with Joni Mitchell a major influence on her vocals. If only this album had the faintest hint of ‘The hissing of summer lawns’ or ‘Heijira’, the listener would be in for a treat indeed.
Instead the absence of keyboards has deprived the listener of the usual depth of underpinning sub-rhythms that have hitherto been Spalding’s trademark. This is illustrated on the vocal echo intro to ‘Rest in pleasure’, that has way too much rock guitar content and comes across as a halfway house between jazz tinges and full-on grunge. At best, Esperanza Spalding sounds more like her old self on the staccato rhythm and heavy bass line of ‘One’, with harmonies here taking a leaf out of the Stevie Wonder school. Furthermore, the light Brazilian touches on ‘Noble nobles’ are a delight and the acoustic guitar accompaniment is infinitely superior to the rest and one wishes for this deployment across the entire album. Vocalese explorations are a welcome relief on ‘Judas’, complete with a melodic bass line, that reminds us that her musicality is still firmly intact. This new recording marks something of a disappointment and hopefully may be a mere temporary departure from the musician’s overall trajectory.

Tim Stenhouse