With her latest three-song suite, Esperanza Spalding follows a long line of Black artists who have sought to bring out music’s untapped potential for healing—from the rich oeuvres of John and Alice Coltrane to the John Coltrane Church that still stands over five decades later in San Francisco. Inspired by a far-reaching array of influences (Sufism, Black American and South Indian music), Spalding etched out early versions of the tracks and shared them with would-be collaborators. After consulting with music therapists, neuroscientists, and other practitioners, the resulting TRIANGLE suite is both meditative and operatic by design: Each “formwela” (song) not only elicits a different emotional response, but also attests to an intended outcome and benefit for the listener.
In recent years, Spalding’s albums have, in one form or another, delved into the connections between our physical and metaphysical selves: In 2016, Emily’s D+Evolution lent a voice to an alter ego derived from her middle name, while each song on 2018’s 12 Little Spells corresponded to a particular body part. In the years since her breakout Grammy win for Best New Artist in 2011, Spalding has—like her predecessors—emerged as a vessel for boundless creativity and experimentalism. Her longtime bandmates (and fellow Berklee alumni), drummer Justin Tyson and pianist Leo Genovese, provide the ground required for her to soar and be more fully present in the music. With TRIANGLE, the 36-year-old singer and songwriter’s intentions are omnipresent, exploring the deeper, more tangible healing properties that music can provide.
The seeds for TRIANGLE were planted not long after the release of 12 Little Spells. Taking a leave from her work at Harvard, Spalding aided the renowned multi-reedist and composer Wayne Shorter, then in ailing health, and contributed the libretto for his opera (slated for release in fall 2021). Over six months, Spalding reportedly witnessed Shorter spring “back to life,” she told the New York Times, speaking to the restorative powers of music. Then, at the start of the pandemic, she found herself in Wasco County, Oregon, about 100 miles from her native Portland, where she was able to realize a years-old dream of opening an artists’ retreat. As she sat alone in a garden on the sprawling land, another glimmer for TRIANGLE came to her, and she began conceiving of different ways that music might alleviate the mounting stress of prolonged isolation during COVID-19.
“Formwela 1” opens with a mesmeric chant from Spalding, and soon “finds her center” with her upright bass and opening lyric: “Sink into the ground wide and steady while the burning/Flickers to a glow out the temple of your ear.” Accompanied by the musician and producer Phoelix on Rhodes, Spalding’s simple piano chords add further grounding to the track. Drawing from the elements of a meditation practice, the intended benefit is to root yourself, allowing whatever comes up to come up and to be receptive to it.
Countervailing the opening track, “Formwela 2” brings the listener into a more subconscious state of meditation. The intensity builds behind Ganavya Doraiswamy’s vocals, which are layered over Spalding’s hushed falsetto as she introduces her guiding mantras: “Remember the works of sun/Surrounding/Love/All grounding/Doesn’t mean it’s time to/Burn it to powder/Maybe now we learn to/Ride it out.” Her words feel especially evocative in connection with Portland, one of several cities nationwide that erupted in protest last summer following the killing of George Floyd. Spalding enlists the help of several percussionists—Steve Turre on conch shells, LaMont Hamilton on bells, James Greeley on bone whistle, and longtime collaborator Tyson on drums—offering her own version of nature and environment as a means to cope with the starkness of present-day society.
With the final track “Formwela 3,” we are drawn back to a conscious state, returning to reality once again. Arguably the most composed of the three tracks, there’s an overwhelming sense of abundance and release as Spalding’s mantric words grow in size and heft: “Wide atmospheres breathe and surround you/While we are stuck inside.” Each repetition of this closing mantra grows more palpable and lasting, achieving a powerful—albeit momentary—reassurance that life will eventually go on, that perhaps someday soon, it could even be better than before. The hopeful feeling is reaffirmed by Shorter himself, who emblazons the track with a fiery yet mindful dose of color on reeds.
Co-produced by Raphael Saadiq and recorded at his studio, TRIANGLE arrives via Spalding’s Songwrights Apothecary Lab, an online platform that promises to allow musicians, music therapists, composers, and others to incorporate therapeutic and healing sounds into their work. The convergence of jazz and spirituality, at one time, provided a platform for John and Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, Weldon Irvine, and Pharoah Sanders, each imbued in an unbridled freedom to conjure untrodden and, often, intergalactic realms not previously taken by Black artists. As Esperanza Spalding now embarks on this new venture to help people through music, she rests on the shoulders of artists who made similarly bold attempts, while remaining mindful that even this form of self-care, especially today, is often considered a political act.
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