A small voice and a big double bass. That’s the first thing that came to mind when I heard Esperanza Spalding’s fifth and latest studio album, Emily’s D+Evolution. Spalding who grew up in Oregon, USA, is in her early thirties and began teaching herself the violin when she was five. Later she switched to the bass and plays both, the upright as well as the electric bass guitar. And she sings.
A singing and bass-playing jazz musician may be a rarity but Spalding is one. I started by saying “a small voice and big double bass”. Add to those buckets of upbeat exuberance. You cannot listen to any song by Spalding who sports a huge Afro hairdo and is part African-American and not be struck by her spirit – it’s in her singing and, of course in her bass playing.
While researching (thank you, Google!) Spalding (and I’ll tell you later how I got to hear about her in the first place), I learnt two things. One, that a few years back she became the first jazz musician to win a Grammy in the best new artist category; and two, that when she plays the electric bass, she favours the Fender Jaco Pastorius Jazz Bass guitar. Like many people I regard the late Pastorius a bass god when it comes to jazz or jazz-rock, so anyone opting for a fretless electric bass of the sort named after Pastorius, deserves to be instantly added to my playlist.
But there are loads of other reasons why Spalding should make it to your playlist. On Emily’s D+Evolution, you may not immediately listen to her lyrics because her bass is so melodic; her accompanying musicians so brilliant; and the overall mood so moving. But when you do, it’s a trove.
On Earth to Heaven , it’s sheer poetry: Kings die ringed in gold/ Slaves die consoled/ On the other side, a meek’s reward/ Is better/ Like a pearly resort/ Except without a report from hell how on Earth can you tell? On Judas from the same album, she sings a tribute, replete with Biblical references, to those who’ve struggled against the odds and have been through the worst only to turn to sinning.
On Ebony and Ivy, she begins with rapidly narrated intro, which goes: Ochre, ivy, brick, and leather-bound books built up by heavy lock crooks with unburdened minds of bastardized Darwinian logic projected as hard evidence on backs and faces of our ancestral culprits wasted, toiling as a majority of plantated crimes…
I’m not a big lyrics guy. I’ll tell you why. I like the music; the instruments; the guitar solos; the bass lines; the keyboard riffs; and so on… you get the drift, I’m a rock music lover and not really a lyrics-humming type – in any case, with singing ability like mine, humming by me is prohibited by my family. Don’t get me wrong. I like a good singer but I don’t necessarily pay overmuch attention to the lyrics. Of course I like the singing but the vocals for me are like another instrument in the whole aural tapestry that is laid out. Unless it’s a pop song or an indie singer-songwriter’s catchy composition that becomes a ditty in your ear and you hum it. I mean you don’t hum Led Zeppelin’s Dazed and Confused, do you? (Or maybe you do, in that case you’re a very interesting person; can I meet you?).
Yes. So I’m not a lyrics guy. I’m a rock guy who’s in it more for the music than the words. But Spalding’s lyrics on Emily’s D+Evolution I couldn’t stop following. They’re intense; they’re profound; they’re complex; and they add another dimension to her songs. I’ve heard several jazz singers and have often been floored by the quality of their vocals – their pitch and timbre and virtuosity. But in Spalding’s it’s not the voice so much as what she’s singing. Hers, as I said is not a big voice; it’s small, really and high in pitch. Yet that doesn’t prevent her from transfixing you.
Also watch: Esperanza Spalding - On The Sunny Side Of The Street (Live at the White House 2016)
Old readers of Download Central will have come across earlier mentions of a character named Hemant, a friend and ace sniffer outer of good new music or great-undiscovered music. It was Hemant who, in a late night’s inter-city woozy WhatsApping session, pointed me to her and I began exploring. First, the new album that I’ve talked about and then to her older stuff such as Junjo, her first studio album on which she’s more of a conventional jazz singer with less emphasis on the lyrics – check out her infectious scatting on Loro ; ditto on Junjo, the title track; and her understated but elegant bass solos on the instrumental Humpty Dumpty. Spalding sings in English, Portuguese and Spanish. And, of course, she is an ace on the bass. Now, why didn’t I discover her before?
Tailpiece: Jehnny Beth (her original French name is Camille Berthomier) is the outspoken lead singer of London post-punk rock band, Savages. They’re a band with a confident, aggressive and in your face sound. You could check out their three-year-old debut album, Silence Yourself, or this year’s Adore Life.
But what I’d also recommend is listening to Beth’s radio show on Apple Music’s Beats1 radio. It’s called Start Making Sense with Jehnny Beth and for each episode she has a musical guest. I heard one with Johnny Marr; and another with PJ Harvey; and a third that was wholly dedicated to the LGBT community after the Orlando massacre. It’s a radio show to go to.
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From HT Brunch, July 3, 2016
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