FLASH BACK to a night in October a few years ago. Most of us were adjusting to the gradual descent into fall: shutting our windows, wrapping ourselves in sweaters, getting to bed early. Esperanza Spalding was wide awake under a full moon, tapping into something beyond the timeline of shifting seasons and into shifting selves.
Before we get to that, a little background on Spalding: The Portland native is what some might call a prodigy; a multi-instrumentalist playing gigs in blues clubs by her teens, enrolled in the music program at Portland State University by 16, graduated from and hired by the Berklee College of Music as a bass instructor by 20, personally selected by President Barack Obama to play the Nobel Peace Prize Concert by 25, and of course, a four-time Grammy Award winner (including Best New Artist). Though she's best known as a jazz bassist, Spalding's music embodies elements of pop, soul, and hip-hop. She sings, too, in multiple languages—to give you an idea of the pace of Spalding's mind and talent.
Now, back to that October night. Spalding was in bed after a gig with her trio (Geri Allen and Terri Lyne Carrington), watching a band on Late Show with David Letterman, when something clicked.
"I started singing demos [of songs] I was hearing, like descriptions: 'sneaker cherry prophet'—words that don't mean anything, but the sensation you feel from their combination gives you a taste that then you try to find through the medium of a whole song," Spalding says. "It just kept unpacking from there."
From that came Spalding's newest undertaking, Emily's D+Evolution—"Emily" being Esperanza's middle name, and the name she went by as a child.
"If you think about evolution, it's a multi-directional expansion," Spalding says. "It can engage aspects of you that are 'behind' you, from your less developed stage, and reaches into things in 'front' of you or aspects you have that aren't activated yet. I really like that idea of embracing our less enlightened, more animalistic aspects, [our] younger selves, and using that as a compass or inspiration for reaching something fresh and new."
With elements of theater and music, storylines and vignettes, Spalding seems to be unfolding the dynamic project one live show at a time. She's keeping it largely undefined, maybe never intending for it to settle into a specific shape.
"We're still drafting and developing, and tweaking and changing, and changing characters, changing location, changing context," Spalding says. "It's a living, breathing organism."
It sounds just about as simultaneously loose and dense as it can be, but Spalding's aim is to invite people into the live experience and let the listener find his or her own familiarity.
Maybe people won't get it. Possibly, they'll love it. Regardless, it's being offered, and it doesn't seem like Spalding's style to stop—or even slow down—to explain.
"I'm ready to receive the 'What the hell?,' the 'Yeah!,' the head scratches, and the indifferences."