Esperanza Spalding… There’s just no stopping this young and very talented artist. Beyond her best selling debut CD “Esperanza”, she’s won the Downbeats Critics Poll for best Acoustic Bass and Rising Star. If that’s not enough, she’s just signed on for her first movie appearance, and captured Oprah’s “10 Women on the Rise” seat…pretty impressive intro.
A seriously gifted bassist, singer, and composer have always been a bit of an enigma. Having that elusive ability to weave and create a line through a harmonic structure and then artistically vocalize (in 3 languages I might add) counterpoint ideas simultaneously on the level that Esperanza commands is owned by very few players, and if you’ve caught her live, she makes it seem totally natural. Spanning and expanding the jazz genre is simply part of her makeup. Coming off a recent gig with McCoy Tyner and receiving major accolades from people of stature, including McCoy, is followed by rehearsals for her upcoming tour showcasing her latest release “Chamber Music Society” sporting a three piece string section and trio covering inspired original material fusing classical elements with a variety of other genres…said another way, the performances and compositions on this CD compel my need to say, a genre-less masterpiece.
Her penchant for a less traditional approach puts Esperanza Spalding in a class of her own. In her own words, what’s important is “the people who are learning now, and creating new things right now”. This is her focus, her mantra, and obviously her first love musically. I used a rather bold statement on the cover of this months issue, referring to her as the 21st century’s first lady of jazz, and from this players point of view, she’s earned it.
Jake: First off, tell me what inspired the compositional direction you took with your newest release, “Chamber Music Society”.
Esperanza: Well, how it came about was last spring I was collecting my mind on a repertoire that I wanted to release for my next record. We started doing the preliminary organizational stuff for the album because I knew it was going to be a big project. So I’m writing down these songs, and I’m thinking of what kind of sound palette I want instrumentation wise for the compositions, and I started to realize, god, this is such a mishmash of stuff that didn’t seem to match. And eventually I saw that the music kind of fell into two families—these tunes had this type of vibe, and the other tunes had that type of vibe, and I started to realize that maybe I should be breaking this up into two records. I felt I couldn’t justify putting all this music into one recording.
A couple of years before this process I was on this trip where I started writing for strings. I think I was listening to some Shostakovich and was just tripping on his writing. So I decided it was time for me to learn how to write for strings. I had all these sketches and string parts that I had written a while ago, and when this repertoire started revealing itself, I thought wow, it would be wonderful to blend the sound that was still in my head from my years as a violinist to the sounds of being a bass player now, like in a jazz combo setting, to see what my version of that would be. I was familiar with chamber music, and I was thinking, jazz is in many ways is like chamber music. So this became a culmination of forces. It was a repertoire that I felt needed to be unique to be able to bring it to life. And it just so happens that some of the tunes that I had already ended up writing strings for were exactly what some of these new pieces needed. Once the sound of the ensemble was in my head, the most recent songs started to take shape. Actually, a lot of the music had been written over the last few years. The ensemble I decided to record with and will tour with consists of three strings, a piano trio, and a backup vocalist. As far as the strings were concerned, I didn’t want to write just background strings, or pads. I wanted to musically integrate the strings beyond the typical setting. We also wanted to have the strings join us on the improvisational side of the music as well. That’s something I wanted to share, and wanted to show. We wanted the strings to really use their whole instrument in every capacity to create a bigger sound and to create more interplay with the trio. There’s this movement and this community kind of developing where the jazz world is trying to understand more about the classical world, and vice versa. I believe classical musicians are getting more and more interested in improvisation. Just in the last few months there have been a few major artists I can think of that have gone this direction. Wayne shorter used the Kronos Quartet, and Bill Frisell just did something with a string trio. I’m beginning to see that this is a real thing that’s developing, and I think it’s becoming a valid part of the musical scene right now, and whether people are jumping for joy or not about this is not my problem…(Laughs)…I think it needed to be done.
Jake: Jumping on some of your words kind of leads me to my next question. I read a statement you made that I felt was noteworthy, that being, “The most important artist and the most important time is right now. It’s about the people who are learning now, and creating new things right now. Idol worship doesn’t help this music in any way”. Could you further your thoughts on that for me?”
Esperanza: Sure! Implied in the statement is the fact that all young musicians, all people pursuing music are going to study. They’re taking a look at how to get a deep knowledge of music. And beyond that, it’s really important for young musicians that are part of a genre, or a style, or a band, to have the freedom, and the bravery, and the confidence, and the support to do their own interpretation of what that means, what that music is, and how they experience it. What I mean by Idol worship is people recreating over and over and over and over again the same compositions, the same works and the same repertoire of masters that have already done it, and done it perfectly. How many Ella Fitzgerald tribute records do we need? I don’t know… maybe we need some. Sometimes I hear someone that has the capability to emulate Ella Fitzgerald, but I’d much rather hear them take that ability and that knowledge and hear what “they” have to say, what “their” voice is. I don’t care about How High the Moon; I cared about Ella Fitzgerald “singing” How High the Moon. If I’m going to hear How High the Moon, I want to hear you sing How High the Moon so I can hear what “you” have to say. Just like in literature, or in screenplays, people can take the same kind of ideas and the same themes like love, or loss, or war, and the reason we find it interesting is not because of the content, it’s because we get a new perspective on that subject that is familiar to all of us. And “that” I feel is really important, that all musicians should be striving for. That’s what I mean by that statement, that’s what I mean by Idol worship, not being obsessed about how one person did it at that period in time. I think that’s dangerous, and allows people to be supported to stay stagnant in their development. You want to be brave enough to do what the art is asking you to do.
You don’t want to be artistically afraid to go after this. Survival in this country is relatively simple. You need just a minimum income, and you can save some of that and have a very good life. That’s important to remember as an artist. If you can figure out a way to live so that you’re surviving, and saving a little for when you’re old, then you can take advantage of that freedom to do justice to your art.
Maybe there will be a lot of people that will not connect with Chamber Music Society. As an artist, I’m trying to balance what I think people would like, and what I need to do creatively, what’s speaking through me, what I feel is important that I need to share. Sometimes you’ll go back and forth and be closer to one of those extremes, or closer to the other, and then sometimes they’re actually not opposite forces. I want to take advantage of this time where I can survive, and I’m young, and I have a little bit of money saved to support myself, and then take that time to investigate what the art wants me to do. At some point, that may become the realization of doing a completely avant-garde record, I don’t know. But if that’s the truth of that moment, you have to do it. That’s the beauty and the privilege of being an artist. It’s sacred……that’s sacred.
Jake: I do see you standing firm as far as your identity as an artist goes. Is this something you see a lot of, or on the contrary, not enough of with the artists you meet out there?
Esperanza: That’s an interesting question. Really what the question should be is, of the artists that most people hear about, do you see a lot of that? Artists are everywhere, but maybe you’ve never heard about them or we’ve never discovered them, and maybe people reading this article have never heard about them. I spend a lot of time in New York, and I spend a lot of time in Austin, and in both those cities I can go out any night of the week and see people who are totally devoted to their craft and doing their thing, and being themselves and not caring. Sometimes their famous and packing the house, and sometimes they’re just in the corner restaurant. And it goes the other way too. Many times players are just rehashing things that have been done a million times. I see it everywhere. Just the other day I went and saw some dance works by Alvin Nicolai, who is an incredible choreographer. He was born in 1910 and became very influential in the sixties and seventies in modern dance. I just wanted to see the works of this guy, and I can imagine if you or someone in the sixties saw this for the first time you’d be thinking…what, where did this fool come from? Where he came from was understanding the mechanisms of his craft and was totally liberated to do it how he felt it should be, and how he dreamt it. He was totally revolutionary in the dance world from that point on. And I’m sitting there watching this going, damn, this is a brave dude. People must have hated him, I mean like hating him in the sense of you’re ruining the music. But he believed in it. I’m sure there are a lot of people that aren’t aware of some of the more talented artists that are out there, and a lot of those artists aren’t concerned about that. I don’t know if I’m answering this question at all, it’s a tricky question.
Jake: Another analogy, in the classical world, might be Stravinsky’s performance of The Rite of Spring, which legend tells us actually created a riot.
Esperanza: One my favorite composers of all time is Shostakovich, and I have this friend who’s an amazing musician who recently wrote this bass concerto for me which I’m totally not prepared to be able to play. So in these next couple of years I’m preparing myself to get to that level so I can actually play the piece, and one of things that I was looking at was the Shostakovich cello suites. When I look at this music, it’s so identifiably him. If you look at the first few bars you see right away its classic Shostakovich. And I thought of Shostakovich when you mentioned Stravinsky and this subject because at that time he wrote music for the state, for the Russian colonist state. And he couldn’t help being himself. So sometimes he would write something in a style, and love it—in his head he said, this is good, I’m safe. Then the next week he would write something, trying to appeal to the state, and everybody would hate it and say it was blasphemy, and corrupt, and heard all these things in it that were offensive, and he could literally be imprisoned, taken away from his family with the possibility of never being seen again. But through all of this, he couldn’t help be himself. That’s something that we as artists fortunately are immune to. We never have to worry about our lives being in danger for our craft. So what do you have to be afraid of? We’ve never had to experience that type of terror from our art, and that’s something he had to deal with. I watched this documentary, and it stated how he thought he had written themes about something that he felt would be positive and patriotic, followed by a very appealing speech he made when he became a commissioner of the Arts for the state. And after writing this piece, people still heard things in it that they considered to be offensive, and he would have to be afraid of the consequences. That’s some heavy shit that none of us ever experience. So I get very curious when people remark musically about one thing or another. I just thought of this when you brought up Stravinsky.
Jake: How do you feel about the statement that was made calling you the new hope for Jazz?
Esperanza: I don’t know—I’m not sure who said that. I think possibly it’s just a play on my name because my name means hope. Basically I think it’s kind of a fickle thing to say, and an uneducated thing to say.
Jake: I think it was said in terms of acknowledging that Jazz sales have been rapidly diminishing, and kind of seeing you as the artist that could revitalize enthusiasm for Jazz again.
Esperanza: My guess would be is that people are possibly more enthusiastic about me then the Jazz element. In terms of the hope for Jazz, I’m reminded of this book. It’s called Three Wishes. This would definitely be related to what we’re speaking of. I read a quote, actually many quotes from this book which was created around a baroness that had a lot of Jazz musician friends that would come to her place in New York. She asked everyone that came to her house, if they had three wishes, what would they be? And dozens of musicians that had been asked, at different times, all stated that one of their three wishes they wanted more than anything else was for Jazz music to be taken seriously, as a true art form, and to be appreciated for what it is. I was thinking about that the other day, and in a way, the wish for the hope of Jazz has really come true. You can go to almost any city in the country and there’s going to be a Jazz study program for the high school students. There’s no doubt that people consider it a true and high art form, and it’s acknowledged around the world. Anywhere in the world you go there will be people making sure that Jazz music is alive and thriving. I think the music is OK, and that Jazz is doing really good on a lot of levels. Also, you need to understand that this music has a right to evolve, and go through its phases of popularity like any other music.
Jake: I think you have truly struck a chord with a lot of the younger players out there, and in that sense, any final words of wisdom you might have to share?
Esperanza: For students of this music, the most important thing I would have to say is do it because you love it, and because it’s fun. And if the way that you’re learning it and the way that you’re experiencing it is not fun, then try to make the way you study it fun. It’s really a drag to get into this music and then be expected to do it by rote or some way that you find unsatisfying to you personally. I can certainly say that every time I felt stagnant in the music or discouraged is probably because I was trying to approach the music in a way that it didn’t speak to me, or resonate with the way I live, or learn, or love music. And if I can find the space to look at the problem, and look at what I wanted to learn and really create, I would want that approach to revolve around what’s important to me. Then the music comes alive, and I enjoy it, and I make much more progress, and that’s what the music should be about. When we find our own approach to learning it, we’re bringing and breathing new life into the music, and it deserves that. There’s such power, and beauty, and depth in Jazz music, and it only comes alive when each of us gives it our own breath, and our own voice.
Visit online at www.esperanzaspalding.com