Esperanza Spalding was a rising jazz star before she beat out Drake and Justin Bieber, among others, to win the 2011 Best New Artist Grammy Award. No jazz artist in Grammy history had ever before won that category, which fueled a slew of online threats from outraged Bieberites.
Five years later, Bieber (who performs here March 29 at Valley View Casino Center) continues his stylistic flirtation with EDM, while Drake is stoking anticipation for the expected April release of his new album, “Views From the 6.”
But what about Spalding, the eclectic bassist, singer, songwriter and band leader, who won two more Grammys in 2013 and another in 2014?
Now 31, she’s on tour to promote her stunning new album, “Emily’s D+Evolution,” which was co-produced by longtime David Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti. The tour stops Wednesday at Little Italy’s the Music Box, which occupies the former site of Anthology.
Esperanza Spalding presents “Emily’s D+Evolution”
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: The Music Box, 1337 India St., Little Italy
Phone: (619) 795-1337
Spalding’s most ambitious work yet, “Evolution” is also the least overtly jazz-oriented release in her 10-year recording career as a solo artist. It combines elements of prog-rock (specifically, King Crimson, circa 1981) and biting funk and neo-soul (along the lines of periodic Spalding music partner Prince, at his edgiest) with an updated spin on classic 1960s rock power-trios and the deviously intricate melodic and harmonic approach of the jazz-loving Joni Mitchell (circa the mid-1970s).
There also seem to be sly allusions to The Beatles, Kate Bush, Janelle Monáe (another Spalding collaborator) and Dirty Projectors, along with alternately direct and allusive lyrics, which are sung by Spalding’s cosmic alter ego (Emily is her middle name). The result is an often dazzling concept album that deserves serious Grammy consideration, although in what categories remains to be seen.
Q: There’s a visceral rock power-trio feel to the songs “One” and “Funk the Fear” on your new album, but with a contemporary sophistication. Are you a fan of Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience?
A:Hell, yeah! I most definitely am. Oh, my god, yes!
Q: The opening guitar parts on your song “Good Lava” have an angular feel that reminds me of the pioneering progressive rock band King Crimson, although nothing else in the song sounds remotely like King Crimson. I know that Matthew Stevens plays guitar on your new album, not you, but are you a fan of King Crimson?
A: I haven’t checked them out yet. But you’re the second person today to mention them, so I’m going to.
Q: The musicians on “Emily’s D+Evolution,” really bring the music alive in very creative ways. Like you, they are jazz-informed artists with a broad palette of contemporary styles from which to draw. What specific qualities were you looking for in your collaborators on this album, not only musical qualities, but as people?
A: It was never a question of “who vs, who” (should be on it). As soon as I realized I would need to play this music live, after he demo-ing stage, (it was): ‘Who do I want I in here?” ... As for their qualities, it wasn’t a case of: “I want to find somebody who can.... blah, blah, blah.” I had a sense of the spirit of the music and how to evolve it with those people who shared that spirit.
Q: There are some songs on the album, including “Judas,” “Earth to Heaven,” “Ebony and Ivy” and “Funk the Fear,” that sound fresh and vital, and, at the same time, seem to be a major tip of your hat to Joni Mitchell’s great albums from the mid-1970s with Jaco Pastorius. Is that accurate?
A: Yeah. My god, most definitely. I don’t know where I was all my life, I just didn’t know about her. I knew her name, but not her music and poetry, and paintings and (guitar) playing. I knew her (1969 album) “Clouds,” but didn’t know she wrote that (entire album). The first time I really became aware of her was with “Dry Cleaner from Des Moines” (from her 1979 album, “Mingus”). And I was like: “Who is this person? This is insane!” Then, not much after that, a friend of mine, Erika, stayed at my house. And, as a thank-you gift, they left me a book and (Mitchell’s 1976 album) “Hejira.” And I was looking at it and saw that Jaco’s (playing bass) on it it. So I was like: “Hell, yeah!” From that first groove, I knew I was going to be (messed) up, and that the music on that record was going to seep its way into everything I was going to do from then on, forever.
Auspiciously, two weeks after that record came into my life, I was called to play at the 70th birthday celebration in Toronto for Joni, where she watched us perform (her songs). Herbie (Hancock) was there, and (trumpeter) Ambrose (Akinmusire), and (singer) Lizz Wright. It was very surreal that I’d engaged with her music, and - two weeks later - I played for her. And, then, I got to meet her later that year. Her life means a lot to me as a woman in this world, and as a creator (of music). She’s a woman that just embraced herself as a person, and as a (living) work of art. She seems to me like somebody who really trusts their own intuition and the art they make, and that’s really inspiring.
Q: Do you hope your new album will attract a new audience?
A: I think we - “we” being anybody who puts out something they’ve made - always hope it will draw a larger audience than the last thing you made. So, yes, I hope, and think, and wish it will.
Q: Are you OK if jazz fans who don’t like loud electric music, and prefer to hear you on acoustic bass, sit this one out?
A: The exchange of expression is meant to be an exchange of pleasure and enjoyment (with listeners). ... If it’s not resonating for them, it’s all good. I still play acoustic bass, and will for the rest of my life. So, the good news is, if you don’t like this, you’ll like something else I do.
Q: How much is Emily your alter-ego?
A: I see Emily as an embodiment of energy that came to bust open this energy in myself. She only exists for this process of erupting. She’s opening a door that won’t remain open once she’s gone.
Q: You previewed many of the songs from your new album when you performed here last summer at a San Diego Symphony Summer Pops concert. After the tour you re-recorded some of those songs. How much are they evolving on this tour?
A: They’re evolving very much, because we’re still in a development mode. So, at times, the music moves and gets adjusted in this phase of its evolution, or any given phase. When I listened back to the record, I said: “We didn’t play that solo right.” But, really, it only exists in live performance.
Q: There were elements of performance-art in your concert here last summer, although with the symphony’s empty rows of seats and music stands behind you and your band on stage, you didn’t have much room to move around. How do the visual and musical components fit together?
A: I don’t know. The inspiration behind it, I can’t speak to, because it’s been a very intuitive process since the first time I got inspired to do this. When I first saw the character Emily in my mind’s eye, and imagined how it could go, it was always interdisciplinary, with light and movement, and very kaleidoscopic in scope... I will say that, generally, I’m trying to re-create what I imagined when I first got inspired with this project. So it’s mainly been a process of trial and error, and the inspiration comes from moment to moment. I might read a poem, and say: “Oh, that’s the essence of that scene.” Or I’ll do a collage and say: “Oh, that’s the set design.” Or recognize red and yellow as opposite ends of the (color) spectrum. Or I look at our sexuality and power, and I grab what seems best at the moment.
Q: Is there life for Emily beyond this tour and album?
A: I have no idea. I don’t know... I definitely do not have it all plotted out; I know how (Emily) feels to me. I know what she’s here to do. I don’t know how that expresses itself through my performances, but she’s teaching me through trial and error. I don’t know how long she’ll stick around.