LuxJazz Sunday: Musical theatre from Esperanza Spalding

Esperanza Spalding

“Den Atelier” welcomed American jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding as she revealed her alter ego Emily to the Luxembourg crowd for the first time on Sunday night.

With seven collaborative and five solo albums Spalding is clearly as prolific as she is talented. She became the first jazz act to win a best new artist Grammy in 2011 and has since won three more.

With the success of her first four albums it might come as bit of a surprise that she has changed direction somewhat with the new album “Emily’s D+Evolution” which was co-produced by David Bowie’s long time collaborator Tony Visconti. This takes her into a heavier almost prog rock sound, leaving behind the straight up jazz that has served her so well in the past. Although what has come as less of a surprise is that this too has been showered with critical acclaim.

Like many acts before her, she has taken to creating an alter ego to break from the pressures of a growing commercial success, this has allowed her to be more creative and adventurous and it certainly shows.

So as the lights dimmed and the band began to appear, the unmistakable silhouette of Spalding’s afro appeared front and centre. Then as the lights rose to reveal Spalding wrapped in a huge sheet, her backing singers began to unfurl her, she dipped down behind the sheet and re-appeared with braids and a crown revealing her new alter ego Emily.

This theatrical intro was to become a theme of the show, so it’s fitting she requested the co-production help from Visconti whilst creating this character.

The smooth jazz was out and replaced by a louder proggier jazz-rock sound as Spalding interacted with the backing singers they held up a sign saying “Evolution” which is rather apt for last night’s performance.

Although this might be a wilder, more scattered sound than we’ve come to expect from Spalding, she still knows how to unleash those jazz vocals which leapt and swerved through the octaves whilst still leaving you with that hint of a delicate Joni Mitchell tone.

You couldn’t help but keep your eyes on Spalding as she incorporated stage design and acting into her already vivid musical storytelling. Every movement on stage was deliberate, it even veered into the performing arts territory which on its own is something refreshing but when backed up with her jazz fusion made it that bit more intriguing. She stepped back from playing the bass as much as usual but when she did pick it up we were reminded of just what a force she is.

Throughout the set the backing singers where very much involved and on “Funk the Fear” they took to centre stage and began their own dance routine, then disappeared from the stage, only to reappear a moment later in the crowd, walking through the somewhat modest audience and continued to dance as Spalding was in the middle of a jam with her incredible band, drummer Karriem Riggins and guitarist Matthew Stevens.

Anyone expecting to hear songs from her previous albums were to be disappointed as the show was titled Esperanza Spalding presents: Emily’s D+Evolution and that’s exactly what we got.

This was a feast of jazz and art all rolled into one, a concept album brought to life and a refreshingly raw experience at that. It’s exciting to see acts throw caution to the wind and take new directions and Spalding certainly jumped in with both feet with this one and it’s that conviction that helped pull it off.