Esperanza Spalding’s Emily’s D+Evolution brings a touch of the surreal to Shepherd's Bush Empire

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She comes on stage in a crouch, to a backdrop of squalling rock guitar and bradycardic bass drum. It’s pitch black but I can see something slung across her shoulders, fanning out behind her like a tail of peacock feathers. She steps up to the microphone and I realise it’s her bass.

On my ticket it says Esperanza Spalding, the prodigious bass-playing vocalist who became the first jazz musician to win Best New Artist at the Grammys, in 2011. But this is someone else. This is Emily, Spalding’s alter ego and the front-woman for Emily’s D+Evolution, a new project inspired by rock band Cream; a documentary about Cream drummer Ginger Baker; and a “sleepless night of full moon inspiration.” Or so the story goes.

I like Emily. She’s an enigma wrapped inside a puzzle wrapped inside psychedelic two-tone leggings. She wears braids and baby blue wayfarer glasses and chunky white high-heeled boots that gleam as bright as a celebrity’s smile. Her vocals are flawless, husky, bittersweet and lustrous as caramel, and with the excellent Matt Stevens on guitar, Justin Tyson on drums and charismatic duo Emily Elbert and Corey King on backing vocals, she knows how to pick a band.

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Stylistically her music goes far beyond Cream and the performance feels more like a show than a gig. One minute Emily is singing trippy, pseudo-operatic vocal lines over a bluesy psych-rock groove, then she’s a philosophising college student, waiting in line with Elbert and King and collecting a graduation scroll as ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ blares out through the speakers. They read the scrolls in a unison babble (something about Darwinism, silver spoons and “good old fashioned learning”), then Emily’s at the piano. Now she’s a hotel porter with a little red hat singing a half rocky, half poppy show tune about the economy going up and down like an elevator. It culminates in musical chaos that sounds like Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet falling down a fire escape and then we’re into ‘Funk the Fear’. Tangled basslines recall 2012 jazz/R&B album Radio Music Society and the helter-skelter rhythm of the vocals is classic Spalding – the first signs that this new project isn’t a complete departure.  

Texturally, not to mention visually, all of it is fascinating. The sound isn’t great: it reduces too many of Emily’s highly evolved basslines to a muddy primordial soup, but there’s nothing she can do about that. More problematic is the lack of strong melodies, something for you to hold on to as the surreality unfolds. It’s too much for a lot of the audience and there’s a sizeable exodus midway through the set.

But then, amid the sound of wedding bells and talk of carnal desire, the tunes come thick and fast and it all feels more satisfying. Rock ballad ‘Judas’ is superb, ‘One’ is breathtaking and melodramatic and ‘Unconditional Love’ is a finisher worth waiting for – beautiful and softly spoken until it turns feral, with stampeding drums, Stevens wrenching at his guitar and Emily shredding on five string bass, playing lines so deep you’d need sonar to keep track of them.

Now they’re bellowing in the stalls and Emily returns for a tumbling, a capella take on ‘Little Fly’ “from Esperanza Spalding’s repertoire” followed by a wonderful, nightmarish rendition of ‘I Want It Now!’ from the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, with full band.

This project isn’t without its flaws. If the strong melodies were better distributed it would make a world of difference. Yet, even in its current form, it has touches of brilliance and there’s something bewitching about Spalding’s commitment to eccentric originality and her reckless disregard for convention. “No more acting those predictable roles,” she sings. I don’t think anyone could have predicted this.

– Thomas Rees @ThomasNRees

– Photos by Roger Thomas