Having garnered acclaim for her sophisticated and artful blend of jazz and R&B, bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding has continued to expand her sound, growing increasingly experimental and organic with each album. It's an approach she takes to yet another boldly creative level with 2021's Songwrights Apothecary Lab. The record shares its title with a class Spalding curates at Harvard that's advertised as "half songwriting workshop, and half guided-research practice," all of which sounds like it is intended to make both the writing and listening of music a more healing and uplifting experience. If that sounds somewhat esoteric and pseudo-spiritual, it is. Songwrights Apothecary Lab is a gorgeously rendered production that skirts the lines between art rock, free jazz, and wordless modern creative improvisation. Rather than using distinct song titles, Spalding designates each track as a numbered "Formwela," a term that implies something between a song, a healing mantra, and a magical incantation. Some, like "Formwela 2" with vocalist Ganavya Doraiswamy, are wordless tone poems rich with vibrant harmonic colors. Others, like "Formwela 7," are dark theatrical works featuring Spalding's half-sung/half-spoken word lyrics against a crashing cacophony of horns, all of which evokes the work of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Yet others, including three mid-album songs with vocalist/trombonist Corey King, are more lyrical, drawing upon folk and jazz influences and showcasing the duo's warm vocal harmonies. While there are deeply engaging moments on Songwrights Apothecary Lab, not to mention songs of deft compositional precision, it's an album far afield of the post-bop jazz, Latin, and R&B that initially earned Spalding attention. It's an expansive, challenging album that often feels as if we are hearing each song leap out of Spalding in the moment, fully formed or not. Nonetheless, it's clear that she is an immensely gifted and technically adept performer, something that remains at the forefront of Songwrights Apothecary Lab as she bounds with sprite-like joy through her kaleidoscopic formwelas.
Songwrights Apothecary Lab Review
by Matt Collar