8 Mar 2020

Esperanza Spalding - 12 Little Spells

From New Horizons, 5:00 pm on 8 March 2020

Jazz bassist and singer, Esperanza Spalding's new album 12 Little Spells is surely about as personal as you can get: a collection of songs about various parts of the body. William Dart checks it and the journey to get to it out.

This audio is not downloadable due to copyright restrictions.

Esperanza Spalding - Lest We Forget, video still

Esperanza Spalding - Lest We Forget, video still Photo: Concord Records

The tune is a Sherman brothers Disney waltz, overheard as if we’re passing a Parisian boulevard café. Its bass line is the clue to my subject here: a woman who not only plucks and bows but also sings.

Chanteuse and bass woman, Esperanza Spalding has got some classy company on this 2011 album, a collection of Disney jazz titled Everybody Wants to Be a Cat.

The roll-call, track to track, is impressive. Fellow cats on other songs include singer Dianne Reeves, saxophonist Joshua Redman and veteran pianist Dave Brubeck.

The mood and style here fits in very well with a woman who first caught my ear in 2008 with her second album, Esperanza. A dramatic cover portrait was the eye-catcher, with the singer sporting a luxuriant hair styling that would rival those of Angela Davis or Roberta Flack in full Afro glory.

But other lineages were coming through on this CD as well. Spalding’s Latina heritage enabled her to slip easily into Spanish for a cover of the 1930s standard 'Body and Soul', or take us to Brazil for her own song, 'Precious', with its bossa nova groove underpinning what sounds like a tantalizing meld of Joni Mitchell and Astrud Gilberto.

Esperanza Spalding was yet to lay down her individual signature and lay out her considerable ambition.

This would come two years later with her 2010 album Chamber Music Society, a release that wore its high-toned chamber music art on its sleeve as well as in its songs.

The wafting seasonal reflections of an original number like 'Apple Blossom', duetted with 78-year-old Milton Nascimento, contrasted with the CD’s opening track, 'Little Fly' — an unflinching art-song treatment of a 18th-century poem by the English writer, William Blake.

The move forward in her 2012 album, Radio Music Society, was caught on its cover.

This time there were no violin, viola and cello waiting for a trio to pick them up. Spalding sits on a ghetto blaster for this Grammy winner and, with a band as discreet as it is sleek, she dishes out cool, elegant funk.

There were more surprises to come in 2016 with a new album titled Emily’s D+Evolution.

Spalding previewed this extraordinary set of songs live at Brooklyn’s BRIC House, a concert that NPR has made available online.

It’s highly recommended and a compulsively theatrical delight. Singing through the voice of her alter ego, the Emily of the title, Spalding lets loose, as she puts it, enjoying spontaneous engagement, asking questions, trying on other people’s ideologies, and welcoming it all without any preconceived notions, because she’s new here.

All of this achieved in a mind-expanding mélange with what sounds to my ears like a sophisticated nod to the spirit of the late Frank Zappa.

This energy carries on and never lets up, right through to a finale, introduced over stalking mysterious bass lines, in which one might imagine the curtains being pulled aside for the encore to end all encore.

And maybe, at heart, it’s a close cousin to a grand Broadway extravaganza, right down to some skewed Rodgers and Hammerstein-styled waltzing.

2017’s Exposure was frank in its experimentation: a studio adventure undertaken over 77 hours, made available live online for our delectation, right down to coffee breaks.

It turned up as a two-disc set, a limited edition that quickly went out of print, with the second of its discs, titled Undeveloped, letting us in at the coalface of creation.

Esperanza Spalding’s latest release, 12 Little Spells, may be her most personal yet.

And, by its very subject matter — the human body — perhaps it has the potential to reach her widest audience yet.

It grew out of her experiences with the energy healing of Japanese Reiki; she liked the way in which Reiki took a non-scientific approach to how music, sound and energy, when combined in specific ways, can affect us.

Another influence was a book by Alejandro Jodorowsky published in 1995 titled Psychomagic that investigates the transformative and healing power of the arts on the human body and spirit. 

Spalding went on to say that she used the book as a tactic, right down to an unblinking acceptance of the role of magic in any negotiations.

And so the 12 Little Spells of the album (although in fact there are 16, with four bonus tracks) move through the various corporeal regions.

We start with the thoracic spine in the opening, title song with bones stacked from mouth to tail in the musical equivalent of full cinematic splendor.

The songs on 12 Little Spells come with strong associations of place.

'Thang', a tribute to the hips, was written while staying in an Italian castle. The new and exotic environment, with her being surrounded by people from all different walks of life, gave Spalding the opportunity to observe how hip movement changed in different circumstances … caught in music over a two chord organ riff that, in classic Spalding fashion, sways off in directions as beguiling as they are unpredictable.

'Thang' delivers a slinky slipping ‘n’ sliding dance and there’s more dancing to come when Spalding moves on to the feet, in a song that tells us, without accepting any argument, “You have to dance”.

And it’s difficult not to with the easyflo vocal counterbopping of Spalding and Corey King.   

It’s not time to put away the dancing shoes yet. They’re needed for one of the most serious of the set’s sixteen songs.

'Dancing the Animal' launches itself with messaging rather than movement. Spalding is addressing the mind here, with some cutting and a propos satire on our present-day dependence on social media and the all-powerful cellphone.

Is this our new religion and spirituality?, she asks. Have we prayed to our phones today?

And when she sings of seeking immortal wisdom from the clouds, I don’t think she means the ones that provide fluffy seating for the angels.

When the very serious message has been put across – some of it underscored by drummer Justin Tyson and the hip band behind her – it’s time for a jagged boogie to deliver a final, unswerving ultimatum: “Guard the animal in you” … “Guard the tangible in you”

Music Details

'Song title' (Composer) – Performers
Album title

'Chim Chim Cheree' (Sherman) – Esperanza Spalding
Disney Jazz Vol. 1 – Everybody Wants to be a Cat

'Precious' (Spalding) – Esperanza Spalding
(Heads Up)

'Little Fly' (Spalding) – Esperanza Spalding
Chamber Music Society
(Heads Up)

'Let her' (Spalding) – Esperanza Spalding
Radio Music Society
(Heads Up)

'Good Lava' (Spalding) – Esperanza Spalding
Emily's D+Evolution

'I Want It Now' (Newley, Bricusse) – Esperanza Spalding
Emily's D+Evolution

'Whisper' (Spalding) – Esperanza Spalding
Exposure (Undeveloped)

'Coming to Life' (Spalding) – Esperanza Spalding

'12 Little Spells (thoracic spine)' (Spalding) – Esperanza Spalding
12 Little Spells

'Thang (hips)' (Spalding) – Esperanza Spalding
12 Little Spells

'You Have to Dance (feet)' (Spalding) – Esperanza Spalding
12 Little Spells

'Dancing The Animal (mind)' (Spalding) – Esperanza Spalding
12 Little Spells


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