Concord Records CRE01816
Earlier this year, Esperanza Spalding debuted three songs she wrote, arranged, and recorded as part of a project she calls the Songwrights Apothecary Lab. She says the lab “seeks to respectfully dip into the healing seas of music/musicianship/song, and distill a few grains of piquancy which carry the life-renewing flavor of the unfathomable ocean of human resiliency.” Spalding’s new recording is named for the project, and Songwrights Apothecary Lab includes those original three songs, along with nine more compositions.
After the tough times brought about by the pandemic, Spalding was eager to tap into the spiritual and affirming properties of music, and explains that her songwriting approach is a “collaborative effort to design songs that enhance a specific salutary effect.” She describes the resulting compositions as “formwelas.” Her website for the project includes a guide for each track on the album, but I found it useful to just listen and let the album’s intentions find their way to me, with the occasional aid of the printed lyrics included with the CD.
The ethereal, wordless vocals of the Oakland, California-based Thrive Choir set the tone for the album on “Formwela 1,” with Spalding joining them with simple piano chords and bass as their voices fade. As she begins to sing, the piano drops out, and she accompanies herself on bass for the first two verses. Phoelix, who co-produced the track with her, filters in sounds and effects. Spalding brings the piano back for the third verse, and as she repeats the third verse, the choir rejoins her to create a deeply affecting closing to the song, which segues into “Formwela 2.”
Ganavya, a singer who taps into many musical traditions for inspiration, shares vocals with Spalding on “Formwela 2,” which uses various instruments, including piano, guitar, and conch shell (by jazz musician Steve Turre) to create a multilayered interaction of music and sound. Wayne Shorter’s saxophone adds spice to the shifting time signatures and harmonic flights of “Formwela 3.” On the album, Spalding stays close enough to the jazz and modern R&B songwriting styles that are her strengths to keep the music from being as diaphanous as the title might suggest.
Singer and multi-instrumentalist Corey King cowrote and guests on the next three tracks, which use spare instrumentation. He and Spalding duet on “Formwela 4,” with King’s acoustic guitar providing the backing. Spalding’s piano and bass give space for the two singers to interact effectively on “Formwela 5” and “Formwela 6.”
“Formwela 7” balances calm with clamor, quiet with aggression. “Hearing is a labor like seeing,” Spalding sings, “Like seeing / Seeing for real.” The loud passage in the middle of the song reinforces the message that listening is not always a passive, meditative act, and that some things we hear may cause us to pull away and reevaluate. “Formwela 9” also mixes melody and noise, conveying the complexity of emotions and life’s mix of pleasure and pain.
Pianist Leo Genovese, who plays in Spalding’s band but also has a number of recordings under his own name, wrote the music for “Formwela 8.” The track is largely instrumental, with a wordless vocal chorus by Spalding, Genovese, and other members of Spalding’s band. It runs over 11 minutes, and it’s the only song that hints at a New Age, Reiki-session vibe. I enjoyed the calm unfolding of the song’s melodies, but it meanders a bit.
The credits for Songwrights Apothecary Lab list various producers and recording engineers, but no recording studios. Information on the website for the project leads me to believe recording took place at studios in New York City and Oregon. Oscar Zambrano has mastered the disc to give the music a consistently open, vibrant, and detailed sound. Spalding’s bass is full and powerful, and voices throughout the disc have texture and realism.
I don’t think Spalding’s intentions for the album would have been compromised by assigning song titles. Not doing so seems a deliberate bid for novelty. Despite that small reservation, the high quality of the music on Songwrights Apothecary Lab allowed me to enjoy it and to feel some of the healing power Spalding intended.
. . . Joseph Taylor