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On the cusp of a major album drop, esperanza spalding rests in motion

courtesy of the artist

When esperanza spalding glides through our area in the coming days, she’ll be moving in a deliberate spirit of grace. “The whole point of this tour was like a resting place,” the Grammy-winning bassist, singer, bandleader and songwriter, who stylizes her name in all-lowercase, explained this week in a conversation with WRTI.

“Because I've been doing so many big, complicated projects that I really just needed a resting place,” spalding explains. “So it'll be familiar things. Songs that don't feel like a strain. And it's very intimate. It's not like: Ta-Da! It's kind of close, things that are known and feel like comfort places from all the records, except for Emily's D+Evolution.”

Her band will be light on its feet, with spalding’s springy bass and vocals supported by Eric Doob on drums and one of two additional collaborators, either Matt Stevens on guitar or Morgan Guerin on guitar and other instruments. At the same time, spalding can’t help herself: the tour will also nod in an exploratory, interdisciplinary direction.

“The next big work that I’m enlisted in has to do with dance, and improvisation in that realm,” she says. “And I did want a presence of that to start trickling out. So there is an element of dance: I'm working with two members at a time from Antonio Brown Dance Company, and it's giving us an opportunity to continue to fine-tune and explore this space that we’re exploring, and also to send out the signals, like: This is on the horizon.”

The “big, complicated projects” that spalding alludes to are mostly a matter of public record. Her most recent album, Songwrights Apothecary Lab, explored an idea both fanciful and disarmingly practical: what can a song do? Each track on the album is presented as a “Formwela,” with the intended use and effect you might associate with an herbal remedy or a magical spell. To create the album, spalding enlisted not only fellow musicians but also natural scientists, social psychologists, music therapists. The album was, in fact, just one manifestation of the lab, which is still an active concern.

esperanza spalding and Milton Nascimento, whose intergenerational collaboration has yielded a new album.
Pedro Napolinário
esperanza spalding and Milton Nascimento, whose intergenerational collaboration has yielded a new album.

A few years ago spalding also saw the full realization of a long-gestating opera, ...(Iphigenia), made in close partnership with her mentor, the composer and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. (He wrote the music; she wrote the libretto and assumed a key role in its performances.) This month spalding announced a new collaboration with another formative hero, the Brazilian troubadour Milton Nascimento. That album, Milton + esperanza, will be released on Concord Records on Aug. 9.

Nascimento, now 81, embarked on an international farewell tour in 2022. After spalding played on a couple of those dates at the end of the year, his son Augusto asked her to produce an album. She flew to Brazil a handful of times in 2023, working with Nascimento at his home in Minas Gerais as well as in a studio, alongside musicians like the Argentine pianist Leo Genovese and the Brazilian guitarist Guinga. Characterizing the whole project as “surreal, challenging, scary, terrifying,” spalding also marvels at the flow state that Nascimento achieved, and the undiminished mastery at his command.

A presiding spirit for the project was Shorter, who died in March of 2023, and whose landmark collaboration with Nascimento, the album Native Dancer, was recorded 50 years ago this September. “This was all about Wayne,” spalding attests. “I think at the end of the day, he is that guiding light for both of us to dare and be expansive, and also go for broke.”

The album reflects that spirit, with several reimagined Nascimento songs, and several other songs that spalding wrote with him in mind. Among the special guests are Paul Simon, who contributes a sensitive vocal on “Um Vento Passou,” and Dianne Reeves, who takes over on a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song.” The closing track is an epic version of Shorter’s “When You Dream,” with vocals by his widow, Carolina Shorter.

The set list for spalding’s tour hasn’t yet come to include any of this material. But she confirmed that it does feature “Ponta de Areia,” the Nascimento song that opens Native Dancer, and that also opened the 2008 album Esperanza. “It has to be something,” spalding says, “because he’s so much a part of my DNA these days.”

esperanza spalding appears on June 2 at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, and on June 3 at Wiggins Park in Camden; for more information, visit her website.

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