MJF headliner Esperanza Spalding raps with the Weekly about her groundbreaking Grammy Award, discovering the bass and cultivating creativity.
Thursday, September 20, 2012
In a way, Esperanza Spalding’s “Little Fly” – a William Blake poem she remolded into a song accompanied by upright bass and an understated string section – is a metaphor for the jazz artist herself: “Little fly, Thy summer’s play. My thoughtless hand. Has brushed away.” Spalding seems to notice and understand the beauty in things that are usually overlooked, like a tiny insect or the notes of a song that go unplayed.
It only takes a few seconds of watching Spalding perform to realize she represents a new chapter of jazz history, one that’s unfolding in front of our eyes just as it did decades before with game-changers like Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. There are other hints: The 27-year-old opened a new door for the jazz world when she became the first jazz artist to snag a Grammy in the Best New Artist category in 2011 (Justin Bieber was also nominated).
Following the unprecedented Grammy victory, which helped propel her Chamber Music Society album to No. 34 on Billboard’s Top 200 list (and also helped her become the best-selling contemporary jazz artist of the year), Spalding headed back to the studio and got busy on her follow-up, Radio Music Society. The 12-track LP – featuring many guest spots from folks like renowned Brazilian vocalist Gretchen Parlato, Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, jazz-fusion marvel Jack DeJohnette and Herbie Hancock Sextet drummer Billy Hart – goes in a completely different direction from the string-themed intimacy of Chamber Music Society.
During a recent performance of one of the new tracks, “Crowned & Kissed,” – Spalding describes as a “song about the unsung royalty in your life, men and women who quietly, every day do the mightiest, most honorable things” – the afroed musician effortlessly leads an 11-piece ensemble through a rich landscape of expertly assembled neo-bop with dynamic syncopation. Every pluck and slap on her fretless Fender Jazz Bass resonates with soul-emitting emotion, as if she bypassed the amp and plugged her bass directly into her heart. And her vocal delivery has a near-scat vibe – with range comparable to Ella Fitzgerald – that gives additional depth and rhythm to the overall orchestration. Spalding simultaneously conducts and performs with the kind of élan any jazz artist can only hope to acquire after a lifetime’s worth of experience. Here she shares some of herself and her work with the Weekly:
Weekly: Seems like you have a lot going on right about now. What have you been doing today?
Spalding: I was just overdubbing on sessions with Bobby McFerrin for a project he’s working on. And the last few days… I can’t even remember.
Are you already working on another album?
Only in my imagination. I’m not ready to talk about it yet but I have some ideas and I want to work on something with [well-known Brazilian singer-songwriter] Milton Nascimento. But I don’t know what it all means yet.
How does your creative process work?
It’s all about a feeling I get. Then I think about it more and more and the details come into view. Sometimes it’s a lightning bolt that all comes at once.
You once said: “The main way in which the Grammy has changed my life is that I keep getting asked how the Grammy has changed my life.” I’ll ask you something different. Are there any pressures that have come with being the first jazz performer to win a Grammy for Best New Artist?
I feel like I have a responsibility to speak to the realities of the industry aspect of music. Because of limitations, stereotypes and expectations within the music industry, there isn’t a diverse representation at the Grammys as it presents itself to be. As a jazz musician, and even with folk music, Americana music and all kinds of music that are really important and thriving in the music world, they aren’t acknowledged [by the Grammys] because they’re afraid they will lose viewers and commercials. That’s a skewed perspective of what’s going on in music. It is weird that we don’t have any up-and-coming jazz musicians acknowledged in the mainstream realm, or on the Grammys, until they die – there’s always that 10-minute segment of the people that have already died. So I think something is wrong with that and I’d be remiss if I didn’t speak to it.
You performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2009. A lot has happened since then. What was life like for you three years ago?
It was pretty much the same. In 2009 I did 200-and-something concerts. I was playing a lot more with other people’s bands. I was also still working on Chamber Music Society, which seemed impossible. I think the biggest compliment people can say to me is: “You haven’t changed.” I don’t think the music industry changes people. In general, what I love about my life and my music hasn’t really changed. Some things are different with the traveling and touring; the band is bigger, there are more interviews and the venues are bigger, but in general, it’s all the same. A ‘career’ in music is something I never tried to cultivate. I’m interested in cultivating art and music… something that’s meaningful that I want to share with other people, something good enough to go up [on stage] and subject people to for two hours. The reason someone makes an album is they have a desire to share their stuff. My guiding principle is to make better and better music that’s always different from the last time someone saw me in concert. Everything I put into my music comes back to me. For me, that’s worth cultivating.
How would you sum up your musical personality?
You once said discovering the bass was like “waking up one day and realizing you’re in love with a co-worker.” Can you explain what you meant by that?
I had been surrounded by incredible jazz musicians who were bassists, and didn’t realize that’s what they were. They were just my music teachers [at Berklee School of Music]. Then I heard them on the radio. After that, I picked [the bass] up sort of casually and then I realized there was this whole world out there I hadn’t been aware of.
How did [Tribe Called Quest’s] Q-Tip get involved as a co-producer on Radio Music Society?
He called me to sing on an album he was working on. By the end of the conversation I had gained the courage to ask if he could be on my album. I first went over to his house to work on what he was doing and I thought we worked really well together and it was fun. I thought, “Wow, maybe we can do something really cool on a couple of songs I have,” and that’s what happened. [Q-Tip] is an amazing musician. He’s an example of how musicianship defies labeling genres or boundaries because ultimately, he’s a powerful musician with a great musical sensibility and has a great relationship with sound and texture. It was amazing just to see how he would tune drums on a song.
What would be your dream collaboration?
There are some people I’d like to work with but you never know what’s going to work. I guess you can always rise to the challenge. I know some people that I definitely will work with and want to work with like Wayne Shorter. And Bobby McFerrin is someone I listened to as a kid and now I’m here working with him, which is sort of surreal. I never would have thought it would be even a possibility. This is better than anything I could have imagined two years ago and it’s really happening. I think that’s the way of music. It’s better than anything I could have dreamed up.
You also have had the opportunity to perform with Prince.
I’ve known him for about seven years. We’ve played together on-and-off casually and he’s invited me to open for him a few times. We’re always calling each other and throwing back-and-forth ideas.
What do you hope to be remembered for?
I guess I’d like to leave some work that makes people feel good, excites them and shows my high level of musical cultivation as a bassist, singer, writer and arranger. I want to leave something that gives that feeling I get when I want to listen to something again because I want to get into all the big juicy parts… because the musicianship, arrangement and interpretation is awesome. It’s the kind of stuff that when I listen to it makes me go “wooooooh!” I would like to leave works that give people that same feeling. And I’d like to be known as someone who never stops improving.
THE MONTEREY JAZZ FESTIVAL happens 6pm-midnight Friday, September 21, 11:30am Saturday, September 22 and 11am-11:30pm Sunday, September 23, at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, 2004 Fairgrounds Rd., Monterey. $225-$335 3-day arena; $66 Friday arena; $132 Saturday or Sunday arena; $125 (military/student $50) 3-day grounds; $40 Friday grounds; $50 Saturday or Sunday grounds. 394-8432. www.montereyjazzfestival.org/2012