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Conversation With Esperanza Spaulding

A seriously gifted vocalist/instrumentalist is a rare breed. That ability, or should I say gift to have command of two voices interchangeably, that capacity to handle counterpoint, “with yourself”, can leave most people, much less musicians, quite speechless at times. That “could” almost be enough said in my introduction of Esperanza. But there’s much more to this young (24, I believe) musician than meets the eye. Her obvious love affair with music, her clarity insofar as her awareness of her evolution, and her sound, which she has thought out well, make her at this early stage in her career a force to be reckoned with, and a voice (voices?) that deserves attention, which will surely ensue with the release of her new CD “Esperanza”. Contrary to how it sometimes may feel within our culture these days, there “are” some young players out there that are dead serious about creating a “life” within the arts, and Esperanza is easily a shinning example of that.

Jake: I read that you came up on violin at an early age in a classical atmosphere, and then moved on to upright at the age of fifteen and started to move away from classical music to jazz and other genres. What were some of those early influences that motivated you to expand beyond your classical roots?

Esperanza: What first caught my ear were local players in my hometown of Portland. Thera Memory, Sweet Baby James, and other players started to have an impact on me. I started to get involved in playing with them, and wasn’t really versed on the music that we were trying to communicate through. I heard this one particular band at that time and one of the people in the band gave me the album ‘Kind of Blue’ by Miles Davis. That was the first record that I went home and really listened to. At that time, I really had an untrained ear, especially for jazz. I wouldn’t have called myself a jazz lover at all. But after listening to it, I just got it —-it struck me, and resonated with me. I didn’t understand this music, but it really hooked me. I was basically just listening to the radio, R&B and the top-forty stuff. That was kind of my vibe at the time. It took awhile to get to the point where I could appreciate the sounds that were further away from what I had been listening to. After ‘Kind of Blue’, I listened to records by Leroy Vinegar and Joe Henderson. The sounds from all these records had a huge impact on me. I don’t know if it was a benefit, or a detriment, but I actually wasn’t really focusing on the bass within all that music. It was more about appreciating the overall “sound” of the music.

Jake: It seems that you had a kind of a light bulb moment as far as your educational quest in music, and in general for that matter, at quite an early age, and I’ll quote you. “It was hard for me to fit into a setting where I was expected to sit in a room and swallow everything that was being fed to me”… quite an astute observation for someone so young. How do you feel that revelation affected the course of your musical studies?

Esperanza: Towards the beginning of my musical studies, at least on the bass, I was cross cultivating my studies because I had my own approach to learning what I thought I needed to learn. When I went to a teacher, (and I figured out right away), I came to him and said, hey, I want to learn this, and he’d say OK, now do this, because this is what I think you need first, and I’d say wait a minute, I feel I have the insight to know what I need for my own playing. I got to see the mix of what I felt I needed to know, and what people were assigning me to do. I didn’t feel what they were showing me pertained to the musician I knew I wanted to be. That was kind of my whole experience with school in general. The only reason I was in a position to discover that is because there were a few years when I was home schooled. And then I figured out that the core material that you absolutely had to know to pass the grade, you could really learn in about three or four weeks, if you applied yourself. So I was thinking, what is the rest of the time really for? I’d be devoting my time to these assignments, and endless projects, and I’m going, what is that about, if it only takes a few weeks. With that perspective, all the extra time I was spending didn’t feel right. It just seemed to be catering to the support for the institution.

So I always just did the work to pass the class pretty much out of respect to the person presenting it, and then tried to focus more on what I thought I needed to do, and that took a different approach. I’ll try to explain it. It’s a different way of listening to yourself, and focusing on “how” you play, yourself, and being able to critique yourself as well. You have to be really, really diligent and say… OK, I know that the only reason I’m practicing is because I want to achieve something… I want to excel… and that insight gave me a different way of practicing and playing. Some people find it easier to achieve things by getting the approval from an outside source, like a teacher. I was never really attached to that aspect of it. So I definitely developed a different type of approach to studying, probably because of that outlook.

Jake: The format for most schools has been “wrote” for many years, and I now see glimpses of alternatives to these programs that have definitely dominated the school curriculum for decades.

Esperanza: I know. I had a hard time taking that curriculum hook, line and sinker—it’s so compartmentalized, especially in music that is so multifaceted. I mean theoretically, if you’re going to a school like Berklee, you’re going there to become a better jazz musician. And when the classes are so compartmentalized, you don’t even get a chance to learn how to put things together. It’s kind of dangerous to be with a bass instructor that will have you transcribe bass lines, and then on top of that take a bass line class, and get something like, well, this is what Paul Chambers was doing, so let’s learn how to do that. Then you’re kind of told, OK, play these bass lines this way on this chart, and then you go to your harmony class, and then it’s kind of, this is what you’re supposed to play on this chord. It’s ridiculous. It’s like you never get a well-balanced meal in context to how everything fits together, and I think that’s dangerous.

Now I have a few students, and I see how they have these terrible standards drilled into their brain, and it’s really hard for them to get past that, and even just “think,” literally, and independently have the ability to be creative and think about some things. Something as simple as what do you want to play, what do you want to do, why do you think you even need to be here. And most students can’t answer those simple questions. That’s kind of a deep one. It shows how institutionalized everything has become.

It has all kind of evolved around a set of techniques that were presented by one composer, and that would be Bach, technically, or at least people from that period. And the danger in that is the same danger you find with people who idolize people like Parker and Trane. They are going, this is what these cats did, and we need to check it out to have a better understanding of making this music. Unfortunately, we never get a chance to deal with the “approach” of these individuals. Of course there was a lot more going on in terms of creative music than what you hear, and if you want to understand how to reach that level of musicianship, you have to understand the type of studier he was—where was he coming from, and what was he doing; even someone like Bach. What was happening around him? We don’t even know that. It’s like we’ve compartmentalized his work, and based a method off of that in an attempt to make ourselves better musicians. It’s kind of an abstract concept when you put it like that, and that’s the danger, the danger of institutions. But, they can also be beneficial in some terms, of course. But for me, that’s the biggest danger right there.

Jake: What to study, per se, has by far been the most controversial subject I’ve dealt with in my time conducting interviews. But “finding your own path to get to that point that you’d like to be at with yourself musically” seems to be the connecting thread with most everyone I’ve spoken to.

Shifting gears here, I feel you have a very fresh take as far as your compositional skills are concerned. Your new CD blends the genres you seem to embrace in a very musical fashion, for lack of a better word. Best that you can, tell me about your compositional process.

Esperanza: I don’t know… I listen to a lot of music, and I’ll write something with a specific agenda in mind, like sound. For example, I’ll notice that we have a lot of tunes like “this” in a set, but I’ll feel we need to balance it out with something from another genre lets say—not even genre, just a feel, or groove, or a vibe, just a different characteristic. So then I’ll try to find a groove, or a pattern, or a melody that I can write a song around to fit that need. But the majority of the time, what happens is that I’ll be sitting with my bass, or sitting at the piano, and just kind of play with sounds—sounds of a chord progression, or the sound of just one note, and something we’ll catch my ear and I’ll hear something like a melody, or bass line related to it, and I think, OK, this could be the basis of something.

I think I compose in the way a painter might compose, in that you understand the balance of light, and shadow, and dark within the composition, and how to make the frame and the landscape looked balanced when someone’s looking at it. And you kind of control the lines of the painting, where the eye goes. In a way, I feel like I compose like that as well. I did study technically all the forms, the sonata forms, you know, the AABA and all those different forms and patterns in classical music, and jazz as well. But all those names, or those titles, are titles representing the balance of a song that’s very natural if you’re in a place to hear it. Basically, it’s just training you to have a way to explain what a very balanced song sounds like.

Of course there are 100 other ways and forms to follow, but basically, I’m listening to the sound, and trying to reiterate themes I think are important… kind of an organic approach. I write a section and say, it needs “this” sound, or “this” emotion, and then it has a density to it, and the song will tell you where it needs to be changed or balanced. I wish I had a technical method, but in all honesty, I never know what’s going to happen with the tune, or what influences will be there.

Jake: It would be unfair for me not to also mention that you’re singing on the CD is quite exceptional as well. I’m constantly speaking about a players “voice” on their instrument, but I have to say you’ve developed quite a command of “both” voices, and I know that’s a challenge to undertake. Where do you see this combination of vocalist an instrumentalist taking you?

Esperanza: I’m really getting into thinking contrapuntally as much as possible. Of course, you think that way as a bass player anyway. But what I’m starting to realize more and more is how powerful thinking that way can be, especially in a live situation where there’s a lot of improvisation happening. A bass player is always improvising.

It’s new, and kind of exciting for me studying counterpoint. I’m saying to myself, how can I think more like a piano player, in that it’s one instrument. You have such a broad soundscape and range available to you, and literally on the piano most of the time you’re playing counterpoint, even when you’re comping. So I think, how can I use these extreme registers together and function like one instrument, and serve a role in the band like one contrapuntal instrument, which can obviously be extreme opposites at some point in frequency, and then still try to function as one unit within the group. Sometimes it’s only appropriate if I’m taking a solo, and sometimes it can be appropriate if there’s a melody happening. I’m starting to use the voice in combination with the bass as kind of an accompanying sound. The effects of that philosophy are very cool.

So I see that in every context I’m in. I’m thinking more like that. When I’m just playing bass, I’m thinking more in terms of a counterpoint line, and I listen to others lines in the music that are complementary, or contrary in motion, and in a way, I’d tend to hear things a lot more clearly. I’m listening for other lines that I can make counterpoint to, literally. At the base level, that’s what bass does. All the things that a bass line does in a Bach piece, outlining the harmony and the groove really, because those things groove as well, functions the same way in the band as you have the drums, the piano, and the horn to work off of and develop that harmony within the piece. I’m trying to develop that contrapuntal concept in my own playing.

One of the things I try to bring to my practice time is studying Bach inventions. I’ll learn the bass part and the vocal part, or the treble part (said better), and play them together. Then I’ll switch the lines and sing the bass line and play the treble line. When you get into that, you hear how two lines, two melodies hold the harmony that exists. So I take these Bach inventions and analyze them harmonically. That’s one of the things you do in a classical university. You’re analyzing these inventions, and it’s funny, because there are fundamentally only two lines, and you get to see how powerful each line is within the piece, and how they relate, and that totally gives your ear the sound of the progression. Then you want to learn how to control that, and manipulate that in ways as a bass player to really serve that function in the band. That’s an exciting role for me to explore.

Jake: So it sounds like this is something that you discovered a while back, and you’re now trying to employ in you’re playing on a regular basis with whoever you’re playing with.

Esperanza: Right. It’s all about sound. I consider myself a natural player, and I use my ear a lot. When I was playing with Joe Lavano, with all his technical skills, I realized it was all about communicating with him. All you can do is depend on your ear in that context. And now, from thinking in a contrapuntal way, I see that there’s even more things that I can do… thinking in terms of playing around, and through the music. It’s like a balance of chords, and space, and tension, and distance, and resolution. When I’m thinking more like that, I’m finding more things to say within that context.

Jake: You were asked to perform at Victor Wooten’s music/nature camp this year. That’s quite a compliment as far as being taken seriously by the bass community. What was that experience like for you?

Esperanza: It was a pleasure. It was a reunion camp, so a lot of the people had already been through it. I don’t know if they were just open, or more used to being in that environment, but it was a really beautiful experience. Again, I’m always amazed at how much music is, well, in people. There’s so much music in everyone. In that context, the tone of my master class was really about learning how to find your own path to get to those sounds that you hear.

There’s an exercise I do with a lot of my students to try to get them out of the prison of subdivisions, and chord changes and the like, and get them to learn to make sounds, or combinations of sounds that sounds right to them… trying to move them in a direction so they can naturally connect. It was so beautiful to see the kids finding the sounds and literally enjoying that experience of finding just the simplest notes that meant something to them within the music. By the end of the hour and a half class, the kids were playing, and it wasn’t like they were burning or wailing, it was just how they played with sincerity that really struck me. They kind of had to suspend their beliefs and dis-attach themselves from the more or less technical facilities that we associate as value as a musician. They were totally in the zone, and were able to receive this simple and sincere music, and I could see they thoroughly enjoyed it… you could see it on their face. That was one of the clearest examples of how little it takes to really communicate with people, as far as sound is concerned.

Jake: This is a philosophy that seems to be considered more and more by individuals who are trying to understand and expand the possibilities of their role as a “musician”.

Esperanza: It’s a philosophy that all musicians that play a lot find, but it’s so hard sometimes to transmit it to beginners, or beginning instrumentalists. But it was all them. They put themselves in a place where they were able to sustain that idea and experience it, and that was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had.

Jake: Your name means “hope” in Spanish, and I know you’ve addressed the concern for somehow bringing that to the people and players that you cross paths with. Usually, I’m asking an artist what advice they might give to younger players. Being a younger player yourself gives that question an interesting twist… so… what advice “would” you give to younger players like yourself?

Esperanza: The most important thing to me is simply diligence. There are so many aspects that need to be considered in life, and music, and within you, that are important. Once again, most importantly, I just think that you have to cultivate diligence… to learn to study, and focus, and keep your attention on your agendas. I know that sounds kind of simple, but it’s so easy to get distracted by so many things. And there are so many different perspectives and ideas to be considered. You can meet five people in a day, and they’ll have five different philosophies of practicing music, or study habits. So it becomes really important to be clear on what you’re doing, and have confidence in what you’re doing, because if it’s wrong, you’ll figure it out.

It’s that skill of understanding what you need to do, and having belief and faith in that, and the diligence to pursue it and carry it through. And it’s interesting, with that diligence, you’ll find that things take a lot less time than you thought it would in the beginning. It’s also very important to be able to access your own playing honestly. What are you doing well, and what are you doing poorly. You need to be open with yourself, and paying enough attention to hear the weaknesses in your playing, and if you can’t figure out a way to improve it, first be clear about what you want to improve, then ask somebody for some help in that area. Never have that fear to “ask”. I found that not only will you get good answers, but also people will see that you’re genuinely in the space of wanting to learn something, not just to be a player, but genuinely wanting to learn something. When more experienced players see that need within you, I think you’ll get a more open generosity from them. It’s important to remember that we’re the babies in the music business, and babies have to have the bravery to experiment and be willing to fall on their faces in front of their parents. You have to understand that it’s a long process before you can get up and run and dodge, and dance, and do all the things you see adults do. So it’s really important to keep that “awe”, because we have so much to learn.

Visit online at www.esperanzaspalding.com

 

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