photo by Deneka Peniston
Esperanza Spalding was known in the jazz world long before her landmark Grammy win for “Best New Artist.” Adept in vocal and instrumental performance, composition, and with the ability to sing in three languages, it’s no surprise why. But as the following interview with The Revivalist illustrates, she is also deeply thoughtful and eloquent when it comes to explaining her ideas about art, music, and the factors that inspire her work.
Congratulations on your Grammy win. I’m sure you’re a lot more recognizable to the general public now. Do you feel prepared for stardom, or do you believe high-level fame is even a possibility for a jazz artist?
High-level fame—I don’t think there’s any value in that, in and of itself. For what any artist is striving for, artistically, high-level fame doesn’t translate to improved productivity, improved connectivity in their art. Is it possible? Yes. Anything’s possible. I mean, anything under the sun is possible. But what is the value of it? To sell more records? Cool. So that there’s more funding for other jazz musicians to make great music and be supported? Great. But for the sake of fame, it doesn’t contribute a whole lot to the artistry of the practitioner. So I guess if I were to answer the first question, “Am I ready for fame?” Well, there is no fame right now. Things are just like they were before the Grammys; I just get to do cooler interviews. People don’t recognize me at the airport, and I don’t think they particularly care, anyway. I’m just ready to continue growing and exploring the music, and trying to figure out what the hell I’m doing, and make the best work that I can—that’s what I’m prepared for. And anything that happens around that, as long as it’s positive, and helps me do my job better, and hopefully shines some light on the community that I’m a part of, I’ll take readily.
So would you say your recognition from the Academy can help, or will help, your peers and community of jazz artists?
I hope so. Improvised music based off of the jazz idiom—and not even improvised music—music that is cultivated and performed by people who are sort of coming from a school of jazz, or from a love of the music—I think the Academy is already really aware of it, and supports it. So it’s really sort of popular culture that isn’t as aware of it, and just isn’t as connected with it, because it’s not as easy to accept. It’s not on everybody’s radio. If you don’t live in a city that has a 24-hour jazz station, and you don’t turn the radio on at night, and you don’t own the records already, how are you exposed to it? How will you discover what’s happening out there? So if this brings the idiom as a whole more in the spotlight, and if some avenues open up for some of the incredible practitioners of this music because somehow people know who I am, then it will really be worth something.
I’ve heard that Q-Tip is going to be the producer of your next album, Radio Music Society—
Well, we’re working together. I don’t really use producers in the typical sense of the word. But yeah, we’re collaborating on the next project.
What are some key differences between his style and Gil Goldstein’s [co-producer of Chamber Music Society] style?
[Laughs] It’s easier to say what’s similar, because they’re dramatically different, obviously. But what’s similar about them is that they are phenomenal musicians. They have an incredibly diverse arsenal of musical experience, and musical awareness; and both of them work great with others. They’re really supportive of what I’m trying to do—that’s what unifies them. They both really believe in my music, and they really believe that they can help me make it better, and offer a lot to the final product. So that’s what they have in common. They’re so dramatically different that it’s hard to start there….Masterful musicians, masterful at completing projects and getting a unified sound. Also, Q-Tip has worked with jazz musicians before. He co-produced a record with Kurt Rosenwinkel. And it sounds like Kurt Rosenwinkel, but you could hear what Q-Tip did. He just brought out a different sound, and actually really framed Kurt’s music beautifully. And that is sort of the faculty in which we’re working. It’s great. It’s exciting.
Radio Music Society, I’ve heard, is going to be geared toward a more popular style of music—
Oh, I don’t know about that. That’s not necessarily true. I think that has evolved out of me saying that we want the songs to end up on the radio. I don’t know if they will. But we’re formatting the music without sacrificing any of the elements that are so integral to my music. We’re just formatting it sonically with the arrangements so that someone who isn’t used to hearing improvised music, or a band improvise, or the sound textures, harmonies and melodies that are really the music that I love (meaning the music I love to make—I love all kinds of music), but hopefully, by some formatting magic, some sonic magic, and arranging magic, we can share this music with a wider audience that is just more used to what is on the radio these days. So that’s sort of the challenge. I don’t know if it’s going to work, but that’s the premise of the next record.
Do you think Radio Music Society will be more accessible—do you want it to be more accessible for the general public?
I don’t know. I hope that if it’s a sound boundary, or an exposure boundary, just the way that it sounds, and it possibly ending up on the radio will allow people to be exposed to it. I think accessibility has more to do with exposure than content. I really think that. If you’re six and you don’t know the difference between what you’re supposed to like and what is too advanced or too elite for you, you just become attracted to what you like, of what you’re exposed to. So if you’re a young person that has been exposed to a whole diverse array of genres and idioms and different styles of performance art, you just have a wider selection to choose from of what you like, and what you feel connected with; what speaks to you. I don’t know how much of it will be the musical content itself that makes it more accessible, or just the fact that it will be distributed, and hopefully shared with a wider audience of people, so that more people will have access to it. That’s how I see accessibility. I think that’s sort of a myth—that music has to be presented a certain way to be accessible. I don’t think that’s true. I think people are much more open and much more willing and able to receive all different kinds of music. Music is much more diverse than what ends up on Top 40 radio. I think that’s more a testament to what ends up on the radio than people’s tastes.
I mean, of course, to a big degree, it is [about content]. But I don’t think it’s as significant as we think, or as we’re taught to think. I’ve seen over and over again, young people, people of all ages, just spontaneously and intuitively like something they’ve never heard before, and they never had access to it, so they didn’t know if they would like it or not. It’s like, if music speaks to you, it doesn’t matter who it’s by, or what it’s saying, or what it sounds like—if it connects with you, it connects with you. And people deserve the opportunity, and I think they want the opportunity to hear more diverse music. That’s why people say, “Oh, it’s so different; it’s so refreshing.” I hear that all the time about new artists. People get excited when something’s refreshing and different, because they like to hear new things. So in that sense, hopefully accessibility will increase more from the direction of more people being exposed to it than that the music has somehow been catered to be “accessible.”
The focus of this issue of The Revivalist is on instruments, so I wanted to ask you about yours—to talk a little bit about your relationship to the bass. Is there a particular way you feel when playing versus practicing? How has your relationship or connection changed over the years?
When I’m practicing, or when anyone’s practicing, we’re honing the details. We’re studying physically how to become agile. We’re working out, in sort of frozen time, meaning we can take a long time with a concept or an idea or a pattern or sound if we need to, until we have access to it physically, and intellectually. We can sort of stop the clock, so to speak, and we can go in and hone in the details. Refine, polish. All these things that have to do with our physical and intellectual understanding, and ability to do something. So when you’re performing, ideally, you don’t have to worry, or think about those things. When I get on the stage and I’m performing, what I’m trying to do is to play from a place of transmission. I want to intuitively have access to these intellectual concepts—either it’s a sound combination, or a physical pattern. I’m passively trying to convey a feeling, or a story, or a thought through the notes, through my instrument. So I’m not worried about technique; I’m not worried about playing a certain shape or phrase. I’m assuming and I’m trusting that these things I’ve practiced will come out when they need to come out to contribute to the music in that moment. So, in a way, it’s like the clock is moving now. So once everything just happens spontaneously, in real time, you’re not really in control of it. The music that we’re playing is based so heavily in improvisation. So when I get on the stage, I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. I know something’s going to happen, but I have to be free enough to listen and react to what’s happening around me. So I kind of let go of all that intellectual control and physical planning, and just try to let the music come out of my well-refined machine, being my body, that is handling the instrument. I think most instrumentalists would say that’s the main difference between performing and practicing.
And as we all get older, we start having deeper connections with everything we engage with. You have a broader understanding of the way that you’re interacting with your work. So when I was much younger, the bass was just fun, and it was intuitive. And improvised music was just a fun, intuitive thing. And now it’s really starting to become a language that I’m studying as a language, and studying different ways of articulating, and vocabulary, and grammar, and different ways of putting together these fine words with their fine meanings, to say finer and finer, and more refined things, that are more meaningful to me. And I assume that as I grow older, and I mature as a human being, my relationship with the instrument itself, and with the music itself will become more ingrained in my being. Just like language—I’m not really thinking about my word choices right now. I’m trusting that what I want to say will come out, and that I have enough vocabulary that the idea I want to convey to you will come out clearly. And as an instrumentalist, that’s sort of what I’m striving for. And I assume that as I get older and have better words and a bigger vocabulary, I’ll just be clearer and clearer. And, of course, for me, the instrument is bass, composition, and singing, and lyric writing, so all of those things I consider my instruments, or perhaps, it’s just music as a whole that’s my instrument, and I intend to just continue to refine and distill my use of the language.
In what ways is the bass limiting (versus the other instruments you tried before it)? In what ways does it allow you more freedom?
I don’t really remember what it was like to play violin. I don’t know why. I don’t remember what it felt like to practice. And I don’t really remember what I physically thought about, what it was like to be a violinist. That was the instrument I played the longest, so I don’t think I really thought about it in that way. But compared to voice, I guess, or compared to writing, for example—again, writing can happen in stop-time, and you can take as much time as you need to work out everything and then you present it when it’s done. Which is very liberating, because you are in control, ultimately, of what gets put out. You can work on it until it’s like, “Okay. This is perfect. This is exactly what I want to say, and I know it, because I’ve edited out everything I don’t want to say.” So with the bass, at least with the way that I’m usually playing it, it’s much more spontaneous, so that is liberating, in and of itself, because you’re so in the moment, and you’re not responsible for everything in the music, so you can sort of relax and lay back, and just become a part of this musical entity. And the drawback to that, of course, is that in real-time, you could play something that you don’t really mean, or you might play something that’s frivolous, or out of tune, or placed in the wrong spot, or not be able to physically achieve what your ears want to hear, which can be a drawback. So the comparison between bass and voice I think would be that the melodies that I’m playing on bass, for most listeners, are much more abstract than what I’m singing. We have such an ingrained connection with the human voice, that however I open my mouth and sing, it’s going to have some symbolism or meaning for the listener—because it’s a voice. The way I breathe, the way I enunciate, even if I’m not singing lyrics, and then when you add lyrics—okay, so then it’s not abstract at all. I’m actually telling you what I’m talking about, what I’m emoting about. So with the bass, there’s a certain freedom in the abstraction. And then of course, again, it’s limiting. If I want to specifically convey an idea, I’m not exactly sure if the listener got what I meant. Whereas with words, I can say, “I am sad because my cat is sick.” So you can say, I understand exactly what you’re singing about. Those are just some comparisons. I don’t find any of them limiting. And they’re not inherently freeing either. With discipline and time, you become freer on all the instruments. And if you don’t practice, and you don’t work hard at them, you feel limited because you can’t physically achieve what you can intuitively conceptualize. So the instruments in themselves are neither, but our relationships with them dictate the relationship that we’ll have whether we feel like a free musician, so we can play and say anything that we feel, or we can never really quite achieve it.
What are some of your non-musical influences?
Life. [laughs] Everything that’s ever happened to me. That’s the main one. But also, I find a lot of inspiration in reading great writers. So recently, I was reading some Henry Melville. And that is just so poetic. Even when he’s describing a scene in a bar. It’s so poetic, and the symbolism is so fine. I really love reading great practitioners of language. That inspires me a lot. And other than that, just life. Anything you’re emoting through music comes from life—where else would it come from? Just going through the routine of a day, and experiencing all the things that I have the capacity to feel, and think, and notice—those directly or indirectly become fodder for my creativity and my completed work.
Visit Esperanza Online here
Interview by Kyla Marshell