A surprise "Best New Artist" Grammy win made jazz instrumentalist Esperanza Spalding break into mainstream consciousness, but the bassist singer-songwriter has always been ducking expectations. Her albums swing from the string arrangements of 2010's Chamber Music Society to the contemporary-pop moves of 2012's Q-Tip-assisted Radio Music Society. She'll back up R&B explorer Janelle Monáe while also working in bands led by swing-circuit veterans like tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano.
But for all her past genre mobility, her latest album still sounds like a bold next step forward. Emily's D+Evolution (pronounced "Emily's D-plus evolution") fuses potent alt-rock riffs and seductive R&B crooning with transitions coming by way of sly, prog-like interludes. The album's theatricality is foregrounded by its titular main character, a presence that Spalding has sounded somewhat elusive about in interviews. Still, the character of Emily is clearly a galvanizing one for the bassist-composer. Rolling Stone spoke with Spalding about melding rock influences with traditional jazz practice for this knotty opus.
How has the "Emily" concept has affected your playing or composing?
I remember as a kid, like, learning "role-playing" in class, to learn skills. So that we would be more comfortable asserting ourselves in certain situations. … Like if a stranger offered you a ride in the car, we would role-play how to react. The idea is that when you're actually in the situation — because you've been through the verbiage and how to interact with the circumstance — you're also more likely to be able to actually utilize [what you've learned]. So I feel like in this case, the role-playing of being Emily is helping me get in touch with her energy. And I have been outside of the project, where I'm in situations and thinking — not "what would Emily do?" — but putting her hat on and her skin on. [That] role-play can help me get more in touch with qualities in myself that I want to enhance.
What qualities are those?
There's a mode of expression — or like a mode of intensity or movement … that I hadn't really cultivated yet [in my music]. That's a really necessary part of my personality. I feel like it hadn't found a home yet. Maybe because I was so focused on the technical aspect. It's very challenging, to do the upright thing, singing and playing — it's static and you have to stay in the same place. So maybe for the practical reasons, the fundamental qualities of my nature hadn't really been harnessed in the realm of performance. … But Emily just came in and busted something open.
You've spoken about your admiration for Cream. Given the riffs that drive several songs on the new album, are any other artists from that tradition in your matrix of influences?
I love Mitch Mitchell. To me it sounds like he uses everything he found. He's happy to go anywhere, with anything that comes his way — and I like people who play like that. It makes me really happy.
Is it a conscious mission to demonstrate the ways that jazz can cross-pollinate with pop forms?
I'm sure it can, because it's a human endeavor, and humans can work with each other in different contexts — so why couldn't the music? But it's not like an underpinning of my philosophy, and I don't feel particularly obliged to preach about it, or teach about it, or betray my perspective on it. I just do what I like to do! [Laughs.] I happen to be absolutely in love with — and a devotee of — quote-unquote jazz music and improvised music. I can't help it. And it affects the music that I make.
Jazz music is improvisation. It's that space where you bring your mastery and your experience and your approach into an environment with other people who have their own mastery. … So you sort of abandon your individuality, in contributing to this weird thing that's being co-created in real time with other humans who all have their agendas. And it's a really magical experience. Ever since I got a taste of that, I've never been able to get enough of it. It's what keeps me practicing. And it's what keeps me involved in the music. That aspect of improvising, I think, is very medicinal. It's very nourishing. … When you sit in an audience at a jazz concert, even if you don't quote-unquote understand what they're doing with the vernacular of jazz — in the realm of the scales and rhythms — I think you can get this general wash of something real happening, and a connection happening. … And even the creatives don't know where it's going to go. That definitely has the potential to pollinate almost any other medium.
But the songs on the record are a bit more fixed in structure, right?
Yeah. There's less improvisation [on this album] because we're really going on a singer-songwriter model. Yes, there's been a lot of growth and evolution through the course of finding the songs that we wanted to record, in the way we wanted to record them. But now that we've found that, we play the same songs every night. That's very different, to me, than getting up on a stage with [pianist] Geri Allen and [drummer] Terri Lyne Carrington … and anything can happen with a song, once we play the melody, which we may or may not play.
Are you going to keep moving between those contexts? Or is it Emily for awhile?
It's this for a while. To get this project to where I want it to be, it's gonna need a certain amount of single-mindedness. Which is very challenging for me! I'm taking it as a great opportunity to exercise that muscle. Though … probably I'll be sprinkling in some gigs here and there with quote-unquote jazz groups that I'm a part of. And I have a writing project — a libretto — that I've got about a year to get into a starting phase, so I'll be working on that, too.
A libretto for what?
For an opera.
Are you composing an opera?
No. Hell to the no. Just the libretto.
Who's composing the opera?
That's something to look forward to.
I hope so!