Lately Esperanza Spalding seems to be in the business of doing things her fans don’t expect. Considering the music of the more R&B-influenced Radio Music Society, her last album, Emily’s D+Evolution, was a sharp left turn. Spalding had returned with a fantastic record that lies somewhere in whatever one would call an amalgamation of rock, pop and jazz fusion elements. The abrupt change in style may have caught some fans by surprise, but D+Evolution, contains some of the musicians best songs. With the epic “One”, pop-sized fusion of “Judas” and Joni Mitchell-esque tracks like “Noble Nobles”, it is arguably the best record of her discography.
About a year later, Spalding resurfaced with another surprise. On July 26, 2017, she announced that her new project, Exposure, was to be recorded in 77 hours with no previously prepared songs and limited to 7777 copies. The entirety of this process was streamed on Facebook live, giving fans the fascinating opportunity to watch her create songs from scratch and direct her band members in real time. Spalding’s (vocals, acoustic bass, electric bass) band was made up of Ray Angry (piano, keyboards), Matthew Stevens (guitar), Justin Tyson (drums). She was also briefly joined by Andrew Bird (vocals, violin), Lalah Hathaway (vocals) and Robert Glasper (piano), each of whom made fans gasp in the comment section when they causally entered the studio.
Due to the nature of how open this entire process was, approaching Exposure, which could be described as an event and an album, is a notably different experience than the rest of Spalding’s discography. Though things like demos or promo copies often get leaked in the music industry, watching an immensely talented and vibrant musician create and tweak something in real time – and having the option to refer to various hours of YouTube clips now – makes it a very particular experience. After a listen to Exposure, it’s clear that Spalding made ample use of her 77 hours.
Exposure starts of in a very D+Evolution-like space, the guitar having a key role throughout album highlight “Swimming Toward The Black Dot.” Sparse sections with a focus on vocals and guitar are surrounded by what makes up the main theme of the song, a more mobile, darkly beautiful passage of notes anchored by electric bass. During the chorus, Spalding’s vocals – specifically the way she multitracks them – are magnificent. In the next track, “Public Trance It”, singing is given even more spotlight. Like in the opener, multi-tracking is used to great effect. Spalding’s voice, accompanied by an active rhythm section and some quality soloing by Angry, harmonizes brilliantly throughout the piece and provides another quality hook.
Over the years, Esperanza’s written vocal melodies have grown to be almost as accomplished as her ability on the bass. Her voice is both elegant and energetic as it weaves and soars through the verse and chorus of the impressive, Robert-Glasper-assisted “Heaven In Pennies”. She skillfully scats along with piano and guitar lines in the infectious “I Am Telling You”. The track’s guitar and drum-driven bossa nova influenced rhythm, combined with Spalding’s scatting and chant-like background vocals during its bridge, creates one of the standout tracks of Exposure.
The two instances of Spalding not having complete control over vocal proceedings create high and low points in the album. Spalding’s vocals are absent from “Coming To Life”, with the talented Lalah Hathaway stepping up to the mic. The result is a somber piece – a moody conversation between Hathaway’s superb wordless vocals, Stevens’ guitar and Spalding’s bass. The bassist shares the spotlight with Andrew Bird on “The Way You Got The Love”, a track with a starkly different style from the rest of the LP. The almost bluegrass-like vibe of the tune is very out of place surrounded by the more jazz inspired pieces of Exposure. Bird, an extremely talented violinist, vocalist and composer, contributes an underwhelming solo that may leave listeners wondering whether a bass solo from Esperanza herself could have taken the track up a level. Considering how this record was created, consistently creating songs on the same level as pieces like “Swimming Through The Black Dot” or “I Am Telling You”, was always going to be a tough ask. That said, compositions on that level are songs that, with time, could go on to be seen as high points in Spalding’s career – and the fact that she wrote, arranged and recorded them in just 77 hours is absolutely ridiculous.
The album closes out with two very different tracks, the playful and simple “I Do” and “Double Jointed Canyon”, which is a great example of fusion accompanied by spoken word. “I Do” is a love song that features Spalding’s singing and bass alone for the first and only time on the record. “Double Jointed Canyon”, with its intense drumming, constantly active guitar, and hazy flourishes of keys finds itself very much on the opposite side of the musical spectrum. As “Double Jointed Canyon” fades out, one thought rings clear – despite the fact that the record was created with a strict time limit, the beauty of Exposure is that, based on the strength of the music, it’s impossible to tell.
Esperanza Spalding (vocals, acoustic bass, electric bass)
Ray Angry (piano, keyboards)
Matthew Stevens (guitar)
Justin Tyson (drums)
Andrew Bird (vocals, violin on track 8)
Lalah Hathaway (vocals on track 5)
Robert Glasper (piano on track 3)
Brian Kiwanuka is a writer‚ attorney and music nerd but not in that order. He digs Armand Hammer‚ Alice Coltrane and Stevie Wonder and occasionally subjects his friends to detailed rants about music. You can check out more of his writing on 93 Million Miles Above.