Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

October 17, 2016

What’s Wrong with the Theory of (D+)Evolution: Esperanza Spalding at the State Theatre

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Esperanza Spalding sees something different in her music than I do. Out of Emily’s D+Evolution — her most recent album whose namesake tour brought her to the State Theatre this past Sunday — I personally got not only the best album I’ve heard this year, but one of the most halting pop-jazz records I’ve ever heard, period: that rare/vital kind of stuff that manages to wrap music at its most complex and daunting in a package that’s not just digestible, but alluring and outright dazzling, too.

If we can take her Sunday performance as any indication, though, Spalding’s own take on the sounds she makes must be pretty far removed from mine. After (or maybe because of) releasing a hifalutin album like Emily’s that’s been getting laurels heaped on it like wood on a fire, it’s little wonder that Spalding seems to be suffering from that age old plight of the popular musician: taking herself way too fucking seriously. Under the guise of a prophet or a sage or a savior or something else like that, Spalding turned what could’ve been a showcase of her downright excellent music into an overwrought mish-mosh of histrionics, bad ideas, philosophizing and pretension. Where I see songs, apparently Esperanza Spalding sees scripture.

By the time I arrived a few minutes before Spalding was supposed to grace us, the State’s stage was well-bedecked with some array of bric-a-brac and instruments. There was a plexiglass cage in the back left corner confining yer average drum set in transparent isolation. There was a huge metal fence on wheels, curled up and obtrusive, off to the right. There were comically big and bulbous flower buds hitched all up the curtains till their middle. There was a synth on a platform in the back center, and there was a giant-keyed piano (to be played by Esperanza’s feet, as we’d find out later in the night) lying lonely in the front. In reality there might have been more colors, but in my mind’s remembering eye all on that stage was jet-black and demanding, save the fence’s metallic silver and the sanguine curtains, which billowed just a bit to the mumbles of an audience chattering in anticipation.

The lights clicked out with those perfunctory applause (markedly milder than the State’s usual uproar) as the Professional Band (as they were billed on the front cover of my complimentary program) sallied out of from backstage and grabbed their instruments. There were five of them — a guitarist, a drummer, a man behind a synth and two backup singers. All wore gray/black patchy suits and stood at attention with Rushmoresque composure; they were five Spockian Bruti waiting stoically for their cue to play. Spalding revealed herself last, clad in a black cape which fluttered slightly underneath her giant afro with each unwinding step. She floated to the center stage and began reciting some manifesto about the nature of (D+)Evolution — she referred us to our program, which included quotes from Charles Darwin, Pope Francis and the likes, and which divided her set into three “Acts,” each with such nauseatingly titled subdivisions as “Environmental Determinism and Mutation,” “Escape from Primitivism” and “Posterity.”

Her speech (d)evolved more or less naturally into “Good Lava” a capella, which soon waxed cantata as her musicians grooved into place. Even considering the quality of the sound — which, at least where I was situated in the nosebleeds, was chopped and muddled to the point of unintelligibility and almost unenjoyment — Spalding and her band were impressive. And no wonder considering their collective pedigree: between the six on stage they had a handsome pile of MFAs, Berklee degrees and New School verifications, proving at least on paper that we the audience were up against a professional jazz band with their teeth cut and their dues paid a la the good ol’ days. Their instrumental technics, if nothing else, really did prove that this was more than just a band who ragamuffined their way into an international tour and onto the State’s stage: headspinning time signatures, intricate vocalizations and fingers blurred in fretted speed keyed us into the fact that the Professional Band really was pretty professional. But with a group so talented and compositions so infinitessimally captivating (each of the night’s songs was from Emily’s, where the brilliance comes in when you realize that every last little sound packs more of a punch than some entire albums), I wanted and needed to hear each sovereign snare kick and bass lick. But the sound was horrendously engineered, so much so that some of the most daring compositions popular music has seen in recent memory managed to bore me half to sleep, hitting the crowd like a homogeneous wall of muddy sound.
But had that been the only issue with the night, I still would have walked out of the State pleased and impressed, if by nothing other than how hip Spalding just looked tittering mesmerically, masterfully — almost impossibly, it sometimes seemed — all along the neck of her bass (unfortunately electric for the whole night, and never upright). This kind of complaint, though, is more audiophilic nitpicking than anything else, especially compared to Spalding’s marquee failure, the one that made Emily’s D feel more like a farce than a phenomenon: all those goddamn theatrics.

arts-concert-4After finishing “Good Lava,” Spalding darkled into another oration on (d+)e-vo-lu-tion before unequipping her vestments and shaking off her afro (’twas a wig all along) in one or two bombastic shuffles, revealing what she’d been wearing underneath to have been a humble and fully-white pants/shirt combo, and replacing what was once her giant hair with a cheap and towering white and blue crown — this is what she’d wear for the rest of the night. I forget what song she moved into next, and I’m not sure it entirely matters. While I had come for her music, what Esperanza Spalding set out to give us was a spectacle. Included therein was a sort of ventriloquist routine with Spalding as puppet and backup singers as masters, an autumnal allegory for change equipped with floating leaves and confetti falling from the rafters, and a ceaseless barrage of mid-song micro-skits and mini-scenes, all vaguely defined, poorly conceived and acted out by the band-members (primarily our three non-Spalding singers) throughout the night. The problem with the whole affair wasn’t necessarily the theatricality or the antics, or, more specifically, that these things existed. A show has every right to be a show. My gripes, you see, are twofold: if Esperanza Spalding Presents: Emily’s D+Evolution was intended to be a play, some performance with a narrative to be followed and a progressive (evolving?) arc, then it was silly, and it failed; but what’s worse is that not only did we get a bad play, but we got a bad play at the expense of the quality of the music we came to see.

arts-concert-2Esperanza and her cohorts, as Sunday night proved, are anything but thespians, and Spalding (along with Sara C. Walsh, the night’s “Scenographer and Director”) must not be much of a playwright, either. The characterization drifted off into some sort of uncanny valley, where our actors seemed too scripted and choreographed to be natural and human, but not defined quite abstractly enough to be alluringly anomalous. The result was lanky and forced, sometimes verging on eye-coveringly awkward, as our three main singer-actors (the guitarist and drummer kept wisely to their corners, as Spalding herself played the field) tore up pieces of paper in anguish/defiance, rushed brashly at Spalding, reset the stage or fell down in mock prayer, all with jarring and unconvincing rigidity. The performance itself was sophomorically wrought with the kind of low-level 1:1 symbolism that might spring from the mind of a precocious high schooler: our protagonist playing a puppet means that we’re all just puppets to the system; a bib, graciously adorned by the servants, signifies corruption and power; falling leaves are change and evolution, a pure-white costume is purity. A cross, ham-fistedly and reverently hung on the back-stage platform, topples the actors to the ground and forces us to reconsider all that came before. Some shit like that. But none of it worked; it was empty, fragmented.

If all that had come out of this silly dramaturgy, though, had been a failed experiment, I wouldn’t harp. I would hardly have given it a passing glance. But because of all the silly performativity, the music suffered; there was just too much else going on for it not to have. Sure, there were moments which shined through as exceptional — a schizophrenic break at the end of some song I don’t otherwise remember, Spalding’s steadily captivating bass-work and dancing from start to finish, an oneiric and deliciously extended rendition of “Unconditional Love” to close the show, William Blake’s “Little Fly” as an a capella encore (and the only song on the night not from Emily’s D) — but I expected a concert. I expected a place to see Spalding (whose music, as I’ve already labored over, has the ability to be nothing short of stunning) play her music, and that’s hardly what she did. I wanted to hear her songs as her songs, not as puzzle-pieces on some higher plane of consciousness awkwardly jigsawed apart and spliced back together via ideology and explanation. I wanted her to shut up and play the hits, and just let the music say what it might — because I promise you, sprung from the brainwork of an artist as brilliant as Spalding, it has a voice all by itself.

Troy Sherman is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at arts-and-entertainment-editor@cornellsun.com.

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