Another great innovator who inspires, but not always directly is Joni Mitchell. You can hear bits of her influence on Prince in songs like “Starfish and Coffee”. Her catalog is vast and includes a period in the 1970s where she ventured into jazz fusion.
Although it was my least favorite of her periods, I always wondered what Joni’s music would have been like if she prolonged her jazz experimentation well into the ’80 avoiding the impulse towards new electronic studio techniques heard in Wild Things Run Fast and Dog Eat Dog. Although I loved those albums, I wondered what new synergies she would have developed.
I think I got my answer when I heard Esperanza Spalding’s Emily’s D+Evolution. One look at the cover says that this is no regular jazz album. The crazy opening track “Good Lava” confirms that.
Spalding fuses jazz, neo soul and world music elements in her arrangements to the point of not being easily pegged to any genre. On Emily’s D+Evolution, she sounds a lot like a contemporary Joni Mitchell, especially on the tracks “Noble Nobles” where her unique Mitchellesque phrasing is apparent.
It’s as if the syncopation and near funk of The Hissing of Summer Lawns was updated in the context of R&B flavored jazz. With vocal phrasing that rises and recedes behind sometimes exotic instruments, Spalding’s lyrics are far more abstract than most soul or jazz music.
The abstractions along with the quirky tempo changes are reminiscent of math rock in many ways. Songs like “Ebony and Ivy” show an awareness of everything from prog rock to funk. Had Emily’s D+Evolution been released in the ’80s, no one would have heard it as it breaks all the established notions of what jazz or pop from a black woman should sound like. This is less Diane Reeves and more Cassandra Wilson on crack. Thank God for those Internets.
Spaulding has a somewhat vulnerable smooth delivery that makes all the unusual arrangements behind her sound soothing, a kind of antithesis of traditional jazz singers who might use vocal stylings to add an edge to traditional sounding arrangements.
Spalding has more in common with alt soul singers like Dionne Farris or even Meshell Ndegeocello due to the extensive list of instruments which she can play (she was classically trained at the Berkely School of Music) and her influences.
Primary among those influences must be Joni Mitchell, or at least on Emily’s D+Evolution. This album does indeed answer to the question of what Joni Mitchell’s music might sound like in a par all universe where folk was traded for soul. Either way it sounds as good as it’s inspiration.