The full moon approaches, and change is nigh for Esperanza Spalding.
“I may be a lunatic,” she says, “because I definitely notice the difference before a full moon. I can’t sleep and I get all jittery. I get all wargh-arghhhhhh!” This comes out as a big, long scream, more soulful than scary. (It’s still a little scary.)
So it’s no wonder that her newest project, “Emily’s D+Evolution,” was an inspiration of a nocturnal shade. “This idea of Emily came to me in the middle of the night,” she continues, “right before my birthday, when there was a full moon. I saw these little vignettes playing out in my mind. The music sound[ed] nothing like what it does now, but I got about ten song ideas, right there and then.”
The jazz bassist and singer is currently on loan from Brooklyn to San Francisco, where she serves as resident creative director at SFJazz and plays a handful of (typically sold-out) performances. It’s a few days before May’s full Flower Moon, actually. If one is to believe such things, the days following a full moon are reputedly the time to put thought into action, to make changes, to act on intuition. Spalding awoke from her dream and immediately recorded her full-moon- fever song ideas into GarageBand, and Emily’s D+Evolution began to take shape as a designed,choreographed, theatrical, musical performance piece.
“What is the new project?” Spalding murmurs thoughtfully when asked what Emily’s D+Evolution is all about. “It’s hard to jump right into describing it. It’s a lot of things: It’s going back to go forward; it’s going back to before anyone ever heard me. So it will be new, even though it’s old. It’s an old curiosity that’s being explored in a new way for me.”
A simple summation, but an apt one, too. Emily’s D+Evolution finds Spalding taking a break from her Grammy-winning adult incarnation and hooking up with Emily, her inner child. Emily is her middle name, and “D+Evolution” refers to the nonsense notion that organized education is the only way to learn anything.
“When you don’t get a passing grade, but you still get to move on: This is what happened for most of my life,” she says. “I never really had good grades. My intelligence and love for learning was never reflected in my grades…ever. But I love learning and growing, and I’m always moving forward. I was never able to reflect that with straight A’s. I felt like an A student, but I just wasn’t.”
The operative words here are learning and growing. The idea of being in touch with one’s child self doesn’t mean running around screaming — an adult falsification of childhood if ever there was one. It is about the quiet, thoughtful creativity of a growing mind, for which instinct and intuition (over rote instruction) entrain discovery.
Emily’s D+Evolution’s first public showing isn’t on a record, though Spalding avers that the songs have been recorded and are ready. Instead, it will debut during a spring tour with Spalding’s current band: Matthew Stevens (guitar), Corey King (trombone, keyboards, backing vocals), Nadia Washington (classical guitar, backing vocals), and Justin Tyson (percussion). Spalding wants everyone to play around with their roles in the band — in a musical capacity, and in a physical one as well. For that, Spalding reached out to Maureen Towey, a Brooklyn-based theater director and stage designer who has worked with Arcade Fire, Ray LaMontagne, and Spike Jonze.
“Most musicians I work with want stage design, but Esperanza was also thinking about the evening with a through-line and choreography,” says Towey. “On our first meeting, we talked about Samuel Beckett plays and avant-garde poetry, things that don’t usually come into the mix when you talk about a concert tour. She had a real clear vision of this as a performance between mediums where she could explore a lot of things she hadn’t done before onstage. The performance is like the title [of the project]: It’s an evolution of what she’s done and the presentation of an alter ego.”
“We’re here to make art, and we shouldn’t be going crazy to do it.”
Because Emily’s D+Evolution unites the two sides of Towey’s work — stage design and theatrical direction — this project invited her to also explore a new role. “Using both sides of what I do like this was new for me. We’re finding a vocabulary that is all our own, while finding a way this can be something very specific for Esperanza’s style. She is a very charismatic, world-class performer already. It was exciting to add elements to make the stage design as exciting and enticing as her performance and music.
“We’re trying to realize a very potent vision,” adds Towey, “one that is tailor-made for the performers, and make that vision something that can tour.”
While this project is something of a break, it was a reprieve Spalding deliberately took from the music business, or the business of being Esperanza Spalding, which became the genesis for Emily’s D+Evolution. Given that Spalding has been playing since she was four (self-taught on violin), was concertmaster for Portland’s Chamber Music Society in Oregon when she was fifteen, and taught at Berklee College of Music, where she received her formal jazz bass training, by age twenty — and then led her own ensembles, helmed four albums, including the acclaimed Chamber Music Society and Radio Music Society, sang for presidents and peers, pissed off a horde of Justin Bieber fans by beating him for the Best New Artist Grammy in 2011, and wowed Hollywood with her solo performance singing Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” at the 2012 Oscars — Spalding has been in the driver’s seat with the pedal to the metal for a long time.
“People may have noticed I took a little hiatus from being a leader,” she says. “I was changing management; I was changing some things in my life, and I wanted some time off from being a leader to focus on the playing part, and the studying part. These are the things I like about being a professional musician, and I was noticing there were so many things I was doing that weren’t relating to art. I felt like I was tired. I was tired of all that crap. I said, ‘I want a break! I want to go into the woodshed and play with other people and not be in the spotlight.’ ” So Spalding chose to be a member in other bands and just enjoy collaboration on another level. “That gave me some breathing room,” she says. “The product of everything I observed during that time, I believe, culminated in this idea of Emily.”
Spalding recalls a friend who sent her an online link to a motivational speaker telling an old anecdote about the greatest lumberjack in the world, whose production starts to decline. “He thinks, ‘Wow, I’ve got to work twice as hard,’ ” says Spalding, recounting the tale. “Then his production starts to go down more, so he works three times as hard, but it keeps going down. Then he realizes, ‘Oh, my God, I haven’t stopped to sharpen my ax.’ My batteries were getting lower and lower and lower. I highly recommend unplugging and sharpening your ax. We’re artists. You’ve got to stop the hustle and bustle to maintain that part.”
Her creative batteries now fully recharged, Spalding is looking forward, beyond Emily’s D+Evolution as a performance piece, to the record to come.
“Hell, yeah!” Spalding confirms with a satiny purr. “That’s a whole other story, but, yes, there is an audio record of this project,” she says, deliberately, as if bringing focus back to the situation at hand. “But it’s definitely an evolving, breathing project in the live medium.
“For any artist reading this,” she adds, “I highly recommend a break if you get into that — ” she pauses and lets out another halting yell that’s perfectly illustrative of existential angst — “that overwhelmed state. We’re here to make art, and we shouldn’t be going crazy to do it. I was worried about slowing down, and now I feel more in charge than ever. It’s awesome.”
“Emily’s D+Evolution” performs on Friday, May 15, at Le Poisson Rouge, and again on Friday, June 12, in Prospect Park for Celebrate Brooklyn!
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