Jazz bassist/vocalist/pianist Esperanza Spalding’s new album Emily’s D+Evolution can be enjoyed as the wondrous avant-garde jazz/rock concept it most certainly is, but as evidenced by her Mar. 3 show at Brooklyn’s March 3 at BRIC House—streamed on WFUV the night before its release—it can also be an enchanting theatrical experience, thanks to its set, backing musicians/performers and the expansively expressive Spalding. And there’s so much going on in both the show and the music to encourage repeated live viewings, should such opportunities manifest.
Variously recalling multi-faceted concerts by the likes of Sun Ra, Jane Siberry and Frank Zappa, it opened with her group (guitarist Matthew Stevens, drummer Justin Tyson , background vocalist/keyboardist Corey King, background vocalist/guitarist Emily Elbert and background vocalist Shawna Corso) carrying out a broad, starry backdrop, which they set up on posts—but it tore halfway down the middle, permitting Spalding, who was crouched behind it, to pop up and out to the stage, garbed in gold feathered headdress, pink glasses and a spacey costume of sparkly gold top with tails and, tiger-striped pink pants.
Picking up a fretless five-string electric bass, she led off with Emily’s lead track “Good Lava,” dancing about the stage naturally and fluidly between the drums and guitar on her right and the vocalists/instrumentalists on the right, all clad in yellow and stationed in between a bookshelf and a wrought iron fence. The bookshelf came into play on “Ebony and Ivory,” as the singers each brought out books and piled them, open, into Spalding’s outstretched hands, directing her to specific passages. When she was stacked with 10 or so books, King rewarded her with a yellow necktie like the ones they all wore, and she then led them in the song’s unison spoken-word parts before dumping all the books save one, then coming to the foot of the stage and playing a foot pedal keyboard while singing from it.
If this weren’t strange enough, she followed with “Elevate or Operate,” for which she and Elbert wheeled out a wooden box, which when opened, exposed two marionettes: a tall man, operated by the stage manager, and a Spalding puppet, manipulated by Elbert as she sang, human Spalding now at the piano. The male puppet eventually did in fact elevate and float over to the real Spalding, while her puppet replica elevated to perch atop the box.
“Noble Nobles” followed, Spalding playing bass while sitting on a step ladder, Elbert playing electric guitar, King and Corso singing on the floor behind them. But the peaceful tune gave way to a violent outburst by King, who had to be restrained by the other two from attacking Spalding on “Judas.” By the end of the song, though, they had soothed him such that they all ended up dancing together—except that now Corso walked away to pout alone at the piano on “Farewell Dolly.” But kicking up the pace with “Funk the Fear” roused her out of her gloom and she returned to the fold, for as Spalding said, “Calling you up and out, that’s what this show’s about.”
Indeed, with Corso now leading the way, the three enacted the “Funk the fear! Live your life!” chant with a chicken dance or funky contemporary hip-hop step. Spalding ended with “Unconditional Love,” the band wrapping themselves in the backdrop before exiting. But they returned to finish with the album-closing “I Want It Now,” Spalding proclaiming, “Now that I’m here, I want more.”
But what more she can want remains an open question. Emily’s D+Evolution (Emily, according to press material, is both Spalding’s middle name and “the label for the spirit-muse” that infuses the project), only evokes more superlative references to a young artist who has already been compared with everyone from Wayne Shorter and Stevie Wonder to Funkadelic and Joni Mitchell (her Hejira period, to be precise).
“I want the world, and if I don’t get the things that I’m after I’m going to scream,” Spalding sang, and the others responded with a scream, albeit a most musical one. She smiled gleefully, as she had throughout, for it had been a joyous exercise in self-discovery shared with all, from the start.