Emily’s D+Evolution by Esperanza Spalding – intense, intelligent and intrepid

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One record I was really looking forward to this year was Esperanza Spalding’s fifth studio album, Emily’s D+Evolution released on Concord ten years after her debut, Junjo.

Esperanza is one of those musicians that just seem too good to be true. Basically, her entire career has been one long, continuous hype. It should really be impossible for the young songwriter, bass player and vocalist to rise to these almost ridiculous expectations and yet she does it every single time, with each new record.

“Notorious” for snatching away the Best New Artist Grammy from Justin fucking Bieber in 2011 (thus salvaging what little credibility NARAS has left), Esperanza is a rare phenomenon in a genre that generally doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves: a superstar.

To steal a lyric from her new record, she is “exceptionally pretty” but also exceptionally talented. She has the confidence of a seasoned veteran but the energy of a hungry young artist. She is intelligent without being condescending and daring without being reckless. She’s had a unique career trajectory, unceasingly rising to new heights and everything she’s put out has been a gem. It was bound to stop somewhere.

Bullshit – no, it wasn’t!

After a four-year break, Esperanza put forth her most ambitious work yet. Emily’s D+Evolution is essentially a concept record, a collection of compositions that perfectly reflects the vision and boundless energy of an artist at the peak of her creative force. It’s a record that bridges so-called genres, joyfully experimenting with the possibilities of the composer’s talent and managing the rare feat of sounding at the same time enlightened and naïve in its lyricism. In other words, it’s exactly what it should be at this stage in her career.

When I reviewed her previous record for BlindedBySound, I called it “another impressive offering from Esperanza and, no-doubt, an important step forward on the road to leaving a very serious musical legacy.” If Radio Music Society was a step forward, Emily is a giant leap of moon-landing proportions. Everything is on point, there is not a single misstep. In her previous work, I pointed out her excessively straightforward lyrics as somewhat lacking in finesse. Here, this candidness no longer feels juvenile, but ripe, clever, playful and sexy.

The record starts with the words “see this pretty girl, watch this pretty girl flow” and I couldn’t help but burst out laughing (in the good way, not the way I do whenever I accidentally hear a tune by Sean Paul).

“Good Lava” is the perfect opening song – provocative, loud and unhinged. As a listener, you instantly realize that this is an entirely new creative direction as Matthew Stevens’ Marc Ribot-influenced guitar, Esperanza’s own Pastorius-tinged bass and Justin Tyson’s drums heavily tilt the sound towards funk and even rock, where it basically remains throughout the whole album.

Still, although the sound is different, Esperanza’s charismatic delivery is the same in her portrayal of her alter-ego, Emily. On “Good Lava”, she teases:

 

lone ranger,

I see you like the view

wond’ring from a distance

what my pretty peak can do

come brave me

[…]

you stranger

one day are gonna be

planting your own flag of

conquered fear and fantasy

right on me

 

For “Unconditional Love”, Emily reverts to her Esperanza-persona, with vocals that call to mind the sound of Radio Music Society in spite of the pronounced presence of guitarist Stevens (a constant throughout the record, which turns out to be almost as much a showcase of his talent as Spalding’s). Undoubtedly a beautiful song making good use of the singer’s splendid voice, it might have benefited from a different position on the record. This way, it slightly takes away from absorbing the full impact of the new creative direction.

The narrative balance is quickly restored with “Judas”, one of the highlights, both in its heavy, impactful sound and conscious, ruminative lyrics, that demonstrate the songwriter’s evident improvement in an area that used to be a noticeable shortcoming.

 

judas, you know the

lonesome road

don’t ya collectin’ bottle caps

of rum

honest sinning to chase the

blues

blur ya ‘til kingdom come

take a little girl who gets to see her

mama broke down

now she’s a lady made for

the modern world

my life

but if you ask my advice us

raging girls

are china dolls fed up with bull that follows

all the way down

digging up holy scriptures to

shame her while she drowns

but if you ask my advice that

shallow grave is a bargain

 next to judgment day

it’s only a matter of time

honey

good money

sinks through her teeth

she’s not evil

forgive this innocent wrecking

ball (man-made)

 

In “Earth to Heaven” the vocalist’s rich, clean delivery contrasts with the band’s rough, prog-rock energy and the poignant, determined poetry.

 

there are no perfect

amends here

you get to just keep on

getting there getting there

there’s no promise or test

here

you get to just keep on

getting there getting there (soldier)

no virgins or saints here

you get to just keep on

getting there getting there

all good children and evil

are even here

 just getting there

war man’s cross on

their shoulders

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?

Equally forceful and another one of the record’s highlights, “One” sees the vocalist at her dynamic best, masterfully playing off of Karriem Riggins’ drums and a short but biting guitar solo to again create a powerfully contrasted track. And since every reviewer and their pet iguana mentioned Joni Mitchell, I’ll take this opportunity to confirm that yes, the artist does draw from Mitchell in her storytelling and delivery and she does so elegantly, giving a nod to a creative influence while still decidedly retaining her individuality.

“Rest in Pleasure”, a soft, sexy counterpoint to the previous two tracks – and once again notable for Matthew Stevens’ excellent contribution – allows Spalding to step back from the heavier narrative of the song’s predecessors and let her hair down, before returning to a more confrontational tone with “Ebony and Ivy” and “Noble Nobles”, where her improved poetry is placed front and center, from the sarcastic recital at the start of the former to the cynicism prevalent in the latter (talking founding fathers with a free philosophy/ that don’t mention me/ or the stain of red blood on their hands/ at all).

With her characteristic charm and wit, the songwriter tackles issues of history, racial heritage, white privilege and education, as is evident in the following example from “Ebony and Ivy”.

sage grows on the mountain

you can dig it with a silver

spoon

float it off to market hawk

and talk it

from hot-air balloons

get your good

old-fashioned learnin’

hear the bell and summer’s

endin’

underneath the apple tree

time to choose a branch

and build your nest of

animosity

now we’re really

really learnin’

it’s been hard to grow outside

growin’ good at act happy

and pretend that the ivy vines

didn’t weigh our branch down

The deceptively soft and harmonious “Farewell Dolly” brings forth pressing issues of gender roles while “Elevate or Operate” with its carnival-ride intro and shades of The Jimi Hendrix Experience comments on glass ceilings and unfulfilled ambitions (so honey stop your whining, wishing, scheming/ press a floor to waste your dreams in) while “Funk the Fear” extends on the topic, berating the very thought process exposed in the former.

The record closes with a dark, almost macabre rendition of “I want it now” (Veruca Salt’s piece in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – itself a rather dark and macabre moment), which the vocalist delivers with a gleeful voracity, refusing to withhold for even a second the fact that this album is meant as an adamant creative statement.

With this brilliant, experimental album, Esperanza Spalding has created not only the best work of her career, but also the best vocal record of 2016 and a surefire contender for The Music and Myth Awards.

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Eberhard Weber’s Résumé – a testament to the versatility and undying power of creativity

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It’s been almost two months since I’ve written an entry for my musical journal. That’s because I am in the final stages of editing a novel I’ve been working on full-time for almost a year. It’s a work that is so important to me that one and a half years ago I decided to make a move which would completely change my life: quit my job in the IT department of a large corporation and become a full-time writer. I did that with this novel in mind. I’ve been working on it tirelessly, until it became twice as long as I had originally intended. Now, with the end in sight, I’ve been writing round-the-clock for weeks and it’s still been moving forward painfully slowly. I’m at the end of my rope and there’s still so much work to do. I’m burnt out. I’m exhausted. I’m depressed. I can’t think, I can’t rest and I can barely sleep. I don’t have the energy to work out and I’ve lost my appetite. I drink entirely too much. Every single second is consumed by thoughts related to my novel, its six-hundred page weight pressing on my mind every second of every day as I painstakingly labor on, trying to finish the editing process for the second draft. Nothing else exist. There is room for nothing else and it is absolute torture.

You might then rightfully ask why I am putting myself through this. The answer is: because it’s what I love to do. It’s something that I am extremely privileged to be doing. When I dedicated my life to becoming a full-time writer this is exactly what I’ve signed up for. The torture comes with the package and I embrace it. This novel is a story I’ve been developing for years. It’s the book I wanted to write my entire life and now I’m finally close to finishing it. Yes, the pressure is immense but writing is all I would ever want to do. If one day, for some reason, I couldn’t do this anymore my entire world would be shattered. My life would be in shambles. I’d feel like I have lost a part of myself, the biggest part. In fact, this is all speculation, I have no way of knowing how I would feel if one day I could no longer write and I dread even thinking about that. This brings me to the story of today’s record.

Though I haven’t had time to devote any attention to writing about it, music has naturally been my trusted companion through these last few weeks. One record, in particular, has been especially close to my heart. That record is Eberhard Weber’s Résumé.

As a storyteller, I’m always interested in the dynamic of a narrative. I see stories in life and I detect them in any type of art-form. Résumé has a particularly interesting narrative behind its creation, for it is a story of loss, transformation and adaptation.

Eberhard Weber is one of the most original bass players in Jazz. His instantly recognizable timbre and unique approach to playing the bass have made him a key figure in Manfred Eicher’s ECM sound. He has released thirteen solo records (excluding compilations) and has collaborated with Gary Burton, Kate Bush, Ralph Towner, Pat Metheny and perhaps most famously with Jan Garbarek. In 2007, while touring with Garbarek, Weber suffered a stroke, one that left him unable to ever play again. In a 2010 interview for German newspaper “Die Welt”, Weber talked openly about his condition:

There is no way I can really play as my left side is still partially debilitated. I tend to put it this way: It’s hardly probable that I will ever get back to my original state.

I can’t claim to know what Weber went through when he found out he could never again play the instrument he loves. But I do know the inspiring way in which the distinguished composer managed to cope with his loss. He found a way for his music to continue.

For 25 years I was on tour with Jan Garbarek. We always had a sound engineer with us who recorded every concert. I asked him to pull out my unaccompanied soli – Jan likes to have his musicians play on their own in the transitions between the individual pieces. All in all it’s twelve hours of material now, and I would really like to release a selection of it one day. Maybe I’d even play a couple of deep tones or drones with it. I’m really looking forward to this.

Two years after the interview, he released Résumé .The record consists of twelve tracks, all developed from his solos and named after the cities in which the particular concert had taken place. Its premise already gives the album a strong identity and a touching story. With the help of drummer Michael DiPasqua and the incomparable Jan Garbarek, Weber’s songs, driven by the deep, contemplative sound of his signature five-string double-bass, become more than just augmented solos: they become stories of their own.

The album starts with “Liezen” and continues with “Karslruhe”, two songs which, I feel, would have worked better fused together into a single, more coherent, opening track (my fixation with good opening songs is well-documented on The Music and Myth). Separately, “Liezen” is reduced to merely a short introduction and “Karlsruhe” is forgettable. Both songs do a decent job of establishing the mood of the album but fail to stand on their own as individual compositions. It might seem like I’m nitpicking  but I always put a great emphasis on the structure of a record and the narrative which results from the placement of the tracks.

“Heidenheim” picks up the pace a little bit with a more “traditional-sounding” bass solo from the man who is known to shun traditional bass solos. The song creates an interesting, lively (at least as far as Weber’s moody compositions go) monologue that is then turned into a fun dialogue when DiPasqua’s drums intervene. This is the moment when the record starts developing a life of its own.

“Santiago”” returns to Weber’s characteristic sound, a deeply atmospheric, meditative piece that flows into the memorable “Wolfsburg”, my favorite track off the album mainly because of the incredibly imaginative use of the haunting minimalist piano notes that are in perfect symbiosis with Weber’s masterful bass.

“Amsterdam” welcomes Garbarek’s unmistakable saxophone and accentuates the mesmerizing chemistry that these two musicians developed throughout decades of performing together. Garbarek’s sax is soft and dreamy where Weber’s bass is heavy and mysterious.

“Marburg” brings a welcomed shift in perspective in a track where the focus in solely on the exquisite bass-playing while “Tubingen” shifts between Weber’s dynamic, metallic vibration and ‘Garbarek’s soothing, familiar melody. The dramatic finish takes us to  “Bochum”, a track whose beginning reminds me of the sound of Miles Davis’ Aura (and that always scores points with me).  After the aura-like beginning it evolves into something entirely unique and interesting. DiPasqua’s subtle percussion works great on this track, making it one of the best on the album. “Bath” is another excellent composition which highlights the diversity of Weber’s playing while “Lazise” carries on in much the same way. The record closes with “Grenoble”, a song that starts powerfully and then gradually winds down, an interesting occurrence in an ECM record, where the closing tracks sometimes tend to be a bit passive. It provides well thought-out closure for Résumé and I can only hope that the twelve hours of solo material mr. Weber has gathered up will lead to more records such as this. Overall, in spite of a lackluster start and the fact that some tracks tend to end a bit abruptly (which is understandable but still undesirable), Résumé is a good record made great by what it represents: a testament to the versatility and undying power of creativity.

Paul Kogut’s Turn of Phrase – Flawless Construction and Perfect Symmetry

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I’ve recently realized that it’s been an insanely long time since I focused on a guitar-driven record, especially given that the guitar is my favorite instrument (very original, I know, but what can you do when you’ve been raised on Hendrix, Dire Straits, Led Zep, Gary Moore and SRV). It was a stroke of luck that I should come across Paul Kogut’s Turn of Phrase since I can’t think of a better album to write about after a long guitar dry-spell.

Turn of Phrase is Kogut’s third release on the Blujazz label and this time he is backed by incredibly accomplished bassist George Mraz and Drummer Magazine’s MVP of 2009, Lewis Nash. If you’re an ECM guy like me you might have heard Mraz on John Abercrombie’s Arcade, M or Abercrombie Quartet (late 70s to 1980) or perhaps Richard Beirach’s Elm (1979). If not, maybe you know him from his many collaborations with the likes of Oscar Peterson, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Stan Getz, Charles Mingus and Dizzy freakin’ Gillespie among (many many) others.

As far as Lewis Nash is concerned, if you’ve been listening to Jazz at all in your life there’s a good chance you might have stumbled across one of the over 400 recordings the man has appeared on throughout his career (and if you’re not a Jazz fan you’ve probably heard him on your Bette Midler or George Michael records). Given the pedigrees of the band it comes as no surprise that Turn of Phrase is a record for purists.

Kogut, Mraz and Nash deliver a work where the main focus is on the individual virtuosity of the veteran musicians and the many nuances of their respective tools of the trade. The three instruments are played to cohesive perfection while at the same time managing to maintain and develop their individual character. In other words they mix well together but also manage to stand out on their own, always a sign of a very solid recording though you would expect nothing less from the very experienced trio.

The record begins abruptly with the track “So That Happened” wasting no time on intros or build, not usually my favorite approach but very effective when handled correctly. Here it serves to exemplify the aforementioned cohesive nature of the album as the band goes straight to work and creates a rhythm and a relationship that is maintained throughout the generous eleven tracks.

The whole album is, in my opinion, a very clean example of what a guitar/bass/drums recording should sound like, with each instrument doing its part. Kogut’s guitar and Mraz’s bass effortlessly and gracefully play off each other transitioning smoothly as they switch the “lead” in this dance of strings while the drums of Lewis Nash provide the “muscle”. This is Jazz 101 and if you’ve never listened to a Jazz recording before, this one is a great example of why we Jazzheads are loyal to this genre. Check out the second track, “About You”, for an absolutely flawless construction and perfect symmetry, from the drums introducing the track, to the bass solidifying it at the middle and Kogut’s intense playing in the closing seconds providing a very pleasant “aftertaste”.

The layout of the album is reminiscent of old vinyls. Its structure suggest a two-part construction, with “Days of Wine and Roses” finishing off the perceived first part and “Sister Cheryl” (with its awesome drum solo at the beginning) ushering in an imagined part two.

While Mraz and Nash offer excellent support on their respective instruments it is, understandably, Kogut’s guitar that sets the mood of the songs, a mood that ranges from bluesy playfulness (“Know It? I Wrote It”, “Sister Cheryl”) to contemplative charm (“Body and Soul” – shades of Ray Crawford in “Blue Valentines” and SRV in “Lenny”) to songs that sound like (and probably are) impromptu jam-sessions (“Turn of Phrase”, “Especially When it Rains”).

The cover songs are delivered with great love and respect and Kogut gets his “private moment” with his guitar on the “Wayne Shorter Solo Medley”, a track that could not and should not have been missing on a record such as this.

Overall, like many quality works, Turn of Phrase does not offer instant gratification. If you’re not necessarily a Jazz aficionado and are thus not accustomed to picking up the subtleties of a work such as this you might get a tendency to “tune out” after a while and it would be a damn shame for this record to be reduced to nothing more than “background” music.

Instead, I suggest taking an hour to just focus on it; listen to it with your eyes closed and try to single out the instruments and picture the musicians playing them. This will, at the very least provide a wonderful opportunity for meditation and, at best, offer you a better understanding of this type of music as you bask in the soothing sounds of this piece of instrumental excellence .