It seems like, in a somewhat modest way, jazz fusion has been making a bit of a comeback. The most prominent evidence of this would be on Kendrick Lamar’s monumental To Pimp A Butterfly, which was given a bit of a fusion tint thanks to contributions from saxophonist Kamasi Washington, who also put out an album last year that seemed pretty great, but if I’m being honest I never finished listening to all the way through (it was fittingly titled The Epic). Then there was also that Flying Lotus album from a year or two back that had some noticeable fusion influences, but again, because it gave into fusion’s more experimental qualities, was one I had a hard time making it through. Luckily, here’s an album from an artist who’s taken that modern fusion sound and turned it into something that’s accessible enough that I’ve not only listened to it all the way through, but many times at that.
The Portland-based Esperanza Spalding is not someone whom I was previously aware of, because despite that fact that I am a modest jazz fan, I can’t muster up any desire to seek out what’s going on in modern jazz, even when it’s coming from someone like Spalding who apparently spit in Justin Bieber’s endless ice cream party of an existence by snatching away the Best New Artist Grammy from him back in 2011. The heaviness of Emily’s D+Evolution‘s lead-off track “Good Lava” (which I can only assume is a dig at that dumb Pixar Lava short) is what immediately drew me into this album, since it’s one heavy load of funk. But a lot of the album also tends to have a bit of a lighter touch, while there’s always some nice atmospheric textures in the production that keeps anything from feeling too archaic, courtesy of longtime Bowie producer Tony Visconti.
I suppose the difference between this and a lot of modern attempts at resurrecting the jazz fusion sounds of the early ’70s as well as their original forbearers, is that Esperanza Spalding actually knows how to write a song. Just from listening to what she’s doing here, you can tell that Spalding probably has a pretty firm grip on the Great American Songbook, as a lot of these tracks have that classic lovesong quality to them. And yet, the instrumentation here (which includes Spalding’s dexterous bass-playing) is just adventurous enough that this doesn’t quite feel like some Norah Jones bullshit that middle-aged mom’s would be into. No, instead it feels more like something the somewhat cooler middle-aged mom’s would be into.
Favorite Tracks: “Good Lava”, “One”, “Funk The Fear”