Esperanza Spalding - 12 Little Spells - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Esperanza Spalding - 12 Little Spells

by Tim Sentz Rating:8 Release Date:2018-10-19
Esperanza Spalding - 12 Little Spells
Esperanza Spalding - 12 Little Spells

Somehow, some way, Esperanza Spalding was nominated and won four Grammy’s back in 2011, and one of those Grammy’s was for Best New Artist – a first for a jazz artist in that category. Her brand of jazz/hip-hop/rock has been a tough sell for audiences outside of the jazz world, despite her reaching top 10 status with her 2012 effort Radio Music Society. Her sugarcane voice is full of soul and reckoning, but her most revered work to date – 2016’s Emily’s D+Evolution – was critically acclaimed by tremendously overlooked by audiences. She had a guest spot on Janelle Monáe’s 2013 album The Electric Lady, but for the most part, Spalding has maintained a fascinating career as that “Best New Artist” with little fanfare.

It’s nothing that’s getting her down either. Last year, she recorded an entire album via Facebook live, and this year she’s released 12 Little Spells, an experiment in release restraint. Over the course of 12 days, Spalding released each track. Not exactly the most profitable marketing scheme but coupled with each single release was a video elaborating further on this theme of “12.” The album bursts at the seams with wicked instrumentation, soulful vibes, and her dominant voice. If Spalding is the face of jazz to come, it’s a welcome change of pace.

Whereas Emily’s D+Evolution was a powerful collection of jazz-rock, 12 Little Spells focuses more on the fusion part of her sensibilities. One of the major highlights of the album is “Thang” a thumpish, old-timey feeling cut, replete with an inviting chorus, and a vast array of melodies. Spalding feels more in a groove than a rut here and she’s brought a plethora of influences and stories to share. “To Tide Us Over” features lush imagery by Spalding over noodling guitars. She whispers, she weeps, she whittles away at our core. 12 Little Spells is rarely a boring listen as Spalding utilizes just about every instrument in her ensemble possible. “Touch In Mine” features trip-hoppish beats, but “The Longing Deep Down” is lounge music on crack – erratic, prog-rock inflected guitars, with bizarre time signatures. It’s Avant-Garde jazz-rock, with beat poetry laced in there.  

“You Have to Dance” houses one of the more accessible choruses, and feels like an actual composition, ripped right from a theme song of a 70s sitcom. It’s groovy and has a riff that pours over the duetted lyrics like a pot of honey. What may turn folks away from 12 Little Spells though is how incoherent it may sound to the laymen. Spalding’s never stood within the same confines as her peers, and jazz as a genre is always scattered with instrumentation that’s full-bodied. A lot of Spalding’s recent rise can be credited to other new-wave instrumentalists like Kamasi Washington, who received full exposure on To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar, arguably one of the most important rap albums of the 2010s.

Another highlight is “Readying to Rise” which shows off Spalding’s harmonizing after a gothic violin brings us into the fold. She brings melodies aplenty with her here and features an inviting R&B’ish verse with high falsettos. The funky “Dancing the Animal” displays a wide range of vocal capabilities in addition to the various instrumentation driving the core of the track. The neo-soul groundwork of album closer “With Others” hearkens back to her previous album and ends the album on a brass climax before fading to black. Spalding has crafted 12 Little Spells with the intent on describing the different body parts, coupled with a bit of witchcraft (hence the spells). The concept of a visual album may seem daunting in 2018 – Beyonce’s Lemonade pretty much opened and closed the need for that in 2016 – but Spalding uses it to great effect. If you feel so inclined, watching the visualizations with the album is an exercise in creativity and exploration, worth your time, but there’s enough meat on these parts as a sonic endeavor to feed us.

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