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Esperanza Spalding presents: Emily's D+Evolution at Tilles Center for the Performing Arts

Dan Bilawsky By

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Esperanza Spalding presents: Emily's D+Evolution
Tilles Center for the Performing Arts
Brookville, NY
April 10, 2016

Esperanza Spalding doesn't want anybody to fence her in. She's never said it so bluntly, but she doesn't have to: Her music says it for her. During a seventy-five minute staging of Emily's D+Evolution (Concord, 2016) at the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts at LIU Post, Spalding managed to wed the primitive, the progressive, and the poetic into a brilliantly precocious and hip avant-rock opera. At times it seemed to ask more questions than it answered, but that may have been the point. It was an undeniably successful slice of thought-provoking performance art, unrivaled in shape, unmatched in scope, and completely in a class by itself.

Spalding's first four recordings—the musically multilingual and sympathetically aligned Junjo (Ayva Musica, 2006) and Esperanza (Heads Up International, 2008), the refined Chamber Music Society (Heads Up International, 2010), and the urbane Radio Music Society (Heads Up International, 2012)—positioned her as an adventure-seeker with a strong and malleable personality. But none were as daring or forward-thinking as Emily's D+Evolution, a psychologically gripping album that plays with and against the topics of identity, growth, stagnation, love, and fear. It's an exploration of self that offers much in the listening, and, as it turns out, even more in the viewing.

After using the Tilles Center as a base of operations to tweak and workshop the show, Spalding returned to deliver this bold and characteristically tight performance. She seemed to hint at the theatrics to come with the choice of pre-show music—Talking Heads, a touchstone for those looking to adopt a dramatic approach to musical presentation—but there was no way to really predict what was about to take place.

As the music of David Byrne and company faded away, ambient sounds, jungle noise, and alien tones filtered through the room. When taken in combination with the stage props—a book case and gate standing at stage left, a small backdrop with the image of a mountain in the center, instruments and a faux-lectern positioned at stage right—it seemed to suggest some sort of bizarre art installation. But then the human element(s) emerged. Guitarist Matthew Stevens and drummer Justin Tyson entered with a taste of psychedelic-infused noise, a trio of vocal cast members arrived and ratcheted up the tension with droning additions, and a crowned Spalding in urban glam attire with five-string electric bass in hand entered with fanfare, splitting the backdrop and walking right over it. That was the launch signal, setting things in motion for the pulsing and pounding, oft-veering "Good Lava."

The first of many smooth and intriguing segues followed, with vocalist Corey King assisting in the visual transition to "Rest In Pleasure," and stage props came to play an increasingly important role in the production. First, a stack of books were piled into Spalding's hands in an effort to mirror the overwhelming information flow at the top of "Ebony And Ivy," a piece that found her delivering an eye-catching performance while putting across Shirley Bassey-esque vocals and covering bass parts by subtly triggering notes with her right foot. Then the pseudo-lectern came into the spotlight, only to be unmasked as a small stage for a Spalding look-alike marionette and its companion. As the marionettes were put through their paces, Spalding hunkered down behind the upright piano to deliver "Elevate Or Operate." It was an effort that perfectly blended theater, spectacle, and the art of the song.

The journey continued with the Joni Mitchell-esque "Noble Nobles, the irrepressibly funky "Judas," and the pared-down "Farewell Dolly." And then the fourth wall came tumbling down. "Funk The Fear" found Spalding's three singing companions dancing away the demons in fun and freewheeling exchanges. Before long they were running off the stage to get audience members into the action, adding further dimension to a larger-than-life work that already seemed to be unbound by the conventional rules of time, space, and concert structure.

Spalding pulled focus back to the stage with "One," touching on nerves and central themes connected to her adopted stage persona, but she really hit her stride again with the last two pieces in the show proper. "Earth To Heaven," a number that sounds like it could've been plucked right from Mitchell's Turbulent Indigo (Reprise, 1994), and "Unconditional Love," the one true radio-friendly song on the album, brought things to a close and brought the audience to its feet. After a brief absence, Spalding returned for a two-song encore that included her deliciously wicked take on "I Want It Now" from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. And then she was gone. She blew in like a gale force wind, carried the crowd into another world, and left mouths agape in her wake.
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