Esperanza Spalding’s Enormous ‘Little Spells’ – Review
Review by Dustin Butoryak
12 Little Spells is a masterpiece. This surreal journey through an immense and complex organism of music is birthed from deep within the brilliant mind and heart of notorious alternative jazz legend Esparanza Spalding. Spalding doesn’t aim for comfortability in this album, blending a myriad of instruments, styles, and genres into a glorious cacophony of sound and expression. The smorgasbord of creative energy that is 12 Little Spells results in a compositional honesty unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. “12 Little Spells (thoracic spine)” opens the album with fanfare and wonder, effectively injecting theatrical intensity into the epic 70+ minutes this album holds from its first notes. The soulful funky swaying of “Thang (Hips)” is followed by the disjointed, expansive, soaring “Touch in Mine (Fingers)”. Spalding’s expert technical jazz background is quite clear in tracks such as “The Longing Deep Down Inside (abdominal portal)” and “Readying to Rise (legs)” with looming dissonant chords and breathtaking time-signature changes keeping any listener on their toes. These more experimental tracks are intermixed with more traditionally written tunes like “Move Many (joints)” and “Lest We Forget (blood)”, which provide more concrete rhythmic and melodic structures to support Spalding’s flawless voice. Despite the spread and variety of each track, there is a deep, indescribable interconnectedness throughout the project; each song title is (fittingly) accompanied with a body part as a subtitle. Much like an actual living organism, the many musical systems and body parts within 12 Little Spells pulse with life, illuminating an infinitely complex and beautiful inner world.
As if Spalding’s intricate instrumentations weren’t impressive enough, her lyrics in 12 Little Spells are a perfect fit with the albums production in their challenging, esoteric intensity. The album’s opening track “12 Little Spells” features Spalding singing “Twelve little wells of golden ink/Bone bottles stacked mouth to tail/Penned in its planet ’round the craggy pole/The inner hall expands in gilded breaths.” Later, in “How To (hair)”, she opens the track with spoken word poetry:
“Through my hair I’m still picking the hulls/Of Europe rained down in scattered handfuls/Their seed-meat shriveled to a hollow rattling/Striking this already ringing land/Resonance choked by pale tendrils shooting off/From long lost roots once locked in nature”
Her lyrics are ascendant. Spalding highlights her genuine curiosity and thoughtful complexity in each track. It’s difficult to state decisively what the album is about (which is interesting given their intense and vivid imagery). Perhaps there isn’t a specific subject or set of subjects being examined in 12 Little Spells; perhaps it’s only a list of internal thoughts and monologues, meant entirely for her. No matter the answer, Spalding’s lyrics are thick with beauty and dense with emotion, sure to inspire thoughts through countless listens.
12 Little Spells is not an easy album to listen to; great attention is demanded from the listener to unearth every layer of creative brilliance embedded in Spalding’s music. The most elusive component of this album – that I’m still not quite able to wrap my mind around – is the raw humanity she manages to capture; body, mind, and soul become one in Spalding’s music, with the expectations we hold of our reality fading into and out of a larger picture only she seems tuned into. This complexity is not a weakness of the album by any means; it’s a challenge, a dare, a shout from deep within Spalding’s body. I couldn’t imagine this album any other way.
Edited by Nate Kovar