A song to avoid overthinking a new relationship
Music as medicine is an ancient notion, but few artists actively attempt to discover the healing properties of this art form as much as multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter Esperanza Spalding. She’s a jazz fusionist who has spent her career experimenting, and her latest project, the Songwrights Apothecary Lab, is a collaborative workshop that treats musicality as well-being research. Spalding sees sounds as ingredients which, when arranged in a certain way, can induce healthy results.
Spalding has long been an instructor and innovator. She was twenty when she was hired at Berklee College of Music. Over the past decade, his recorded work has become progressively more curious. His first three vocal jazz albums, although improvised, became more and more robust and his accompanists went from a trio to an ensemble. She was introduced to many spectators as her star rose after her Grammy win in 2011 for Best New Artist, when she beat Justin Bieber, Mumford & Sons and Drake. His 2012 album, “Radio Music Society,” produced by rapper-producer Q-Tip, of A Tribe Called Quest, has spilled over into contemporary soul; The 2016 sequel, “Emily’s D + Evolution,” co-produced with David Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti, has moved away from the genre altogether, exploring an alter ego. His recent albums have been even more convincing. For a 2017 limited edition album, “Exposure,” she wrote, arranged and recorded on Facebook Live for seventy-seven straight hours. On “12 Little Spells,” released a year later, she created each song with a corresponding body part in mind. With each new release, Spalding explores the capabilities of his art, and the Songwrights Apothecary Lab is his biggest leap to date.
From Sun Ra to Tony Scott, jazz has always had a spiritual component, and SAL continues that tradition. The project is channeling the mind of jazz icon John Coltrane, who once said, “I would like to discover a method so that if I want it to rain, it will start to rain right away. If a friend of mine is sick, I would like to play a certain song and he will be cured; when he was broke I would put out a different song and he would immediately get all the money he needed. Coltrane was inspired by what he called “the modal aspect of [the] art ”by Indian composer Ravi Shankar, and by the mystical idea that specific sounds could be used to produce a specific meaning or feeling.
The songs produced by Spalding’s lab are exploratory acts, and the word “apothecary” makes them sound like folk medicine. “All of SAL’s Formwelas (songs) are created through our research, divination, intuition, musicality, taste, inspiration and collaborative effort to craft songs that enhance a specific health effect,” Lab website bed. Almost like auditory feng shui, the “formweas” in this song cycle seek the flow of energy. “Formwela 4”, for example, is “to tune in to expect and receive harmonization by speaking intimately to the unexpressed needs of the heart”. Rightly so, his music is meditative and straightforward – softly strummed acoustic guitar, hummed backing vocals and mellow harmonies. The lab imagines music as signals sent to the brain, recalibrating its chemistry. What would be possible if we could reverse the way songs affect us? Could we achieve just short of Coltrane’s vision, deliberately creating songs as remedies to restore the spirit?
Spalding’s tonic, modal new album, named after the lab that produced it, points to this utility – how songs can benefit our material reality on a case-by-case basis. Created in collaboration with singer-songwriter R. & B. Raphael Saadiq, producer Phoelix, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and others, the writing and acting are situational, with the desired outcome being openly discussed. When it comes to intended applications of music, listener mileage may vary, but something rewarding is happening in these sessions. It’s the opposite of improvisation – this music is carefully worded, drawn with purpose – but it retains much of the charm and fearlessness of Spalding’s earlier work. The compositions make effective use of her relaxed voice, itself a healing instrument capable of calming the mind and loosening the body. On “Formwela 1,” her bare voice echoes – cascading – until she is focused, every note of her falsetto tense and sharp. On the freewheeling “Formwela 8”, her voice disappears in and out of the choir as the saxophone bleating draws the arc, and the voice and instrument evaporate into a swelling whole.
Even for the most skeptical listener, the music in the lab can be invigorating, if not therapeutic, then intoxicating. The underlying power of sound comes from impact. Before a song can have a planned effect, it must first connect. The great happiness of the wind chime of “Formwela 2” and the elastic pull of “Formwela 6” both hypnotize, and through their thoughtful individual arrangements, they begin to work in pursuit of separate agendas—the old one purify the air in a house on the verge of combustion; the last to avoid overthinking in a new relationship. On “Formwela 2,” the conchs, bells, bone whistle and song of singer Ganavya become a calming influence, mingling in a muffled storm. Spalding’s fingers move a double bass up and down on “Formwela 6”, as she calmly sings of the sun one day swallowing the Earth. “But it’s light years away,” she adds.
Beyond the oversized vision of the medicinal music laboratory, there are songs that simply soak up the atmosphere like a scented candle. Much of the Wellness Industrial Complex is a scam, but SAL, both as a creative workshop and as a music album, tries to dream of something worth it. The songs do not require any serious investment from the audience. Instead, Spalding engages listeners in his ongoing attempts to see if music can do more.