Where's the antidote? Who has the formula? Has the healing begun?
It's true that Esperanza Spalding album Songwrights Apothecary Lab sounds like nothing else this year.
But when news of this project started to spool out there was a certain amount of bafflement in some quarters at the concept. The Grammy-winning bassist singer-composer-bandleader and all-round musical genius talked about the pursuit of these ''Formwela'' pieces aiming at ''de-stressing'' and ''de-escalation''. So was this going to be an exercise in wellness and self-help with the centre all hollowed out? As it turns out, no.
'Formwela 2' is sprawling with an Indo-jazz heart to it featuring vocalist Ganavya Doraiswamy; '3' is more a conventional vocal although there is nothing conventional about this extraordinary often deeply soulful album. 'Formwela 4' again becomes more quantifiable as a song and yet there is such layering and structural shape-shifting even against a sunny guitar accompaniment.
Collaborators on the album include drummer Francisco Mela, pianist Leo Genovese, guitarist Matthew Stevens, and saxophonist Aaron Burnett. Spalding is touring again including a recent appearance on the same bill as Herbie Hancock. Corey King duetting shadows Esperanza's mezzo epecially well on '5'. There is an operatic intensity to the whole album produced by Spalding. The album has a wide panorama and feels far more expansive than most jazz albums this year. In that sense her work as a composer compares well with how Wayne Shorter can arrive at a destination by a totally different musical route. The seventh 'Formwela' is the most healing of the tracks while Spalding's bass opens '8' and the jazz structures seem more familiar given this beginning and when the band join. '9' begins like a pep talk and then goes into a beautiful vocal space that scales Kate Bush-like intensity and channels what can only be called a spiritual energy. How can anybody else really know what it's like to be you, the lyric asks. There is a punchy directness to '10' a piece about the damage of love and its consequences. 'Formwela 13' is as experimental as the album. Adjust your ears first, you will need to given the uniqueness of the sound and you will know that the healing has begun, part of the point of the whole idea after all. It's clear that this is a major work and one of the year's best albums in terms of sheer innovation and experimental endeavour that achieves a rare sense of ignition and the clarity of discovery at many key moments throughout. Stephen Graham