In conversation with esperanza spalding
By Tomas Peńa
Those following jazz ought to keep an ear on the bassist Esperanza Spalding, who is going about things her own way. She’s got a good tone and conservatory training, but so has everyone else these days. More important, she already sounds distinct. Essentially she’s a singer, using her instrument and her voice to similar ends. Her musicality is all integrated: The Esperanza Spalding experience is light, melodic, joyful, always sort of minimalist and airborne.
Ben Ratliff, The New York Times
Congratulations on your new recording, Esperanza. Very impressive!
Just to clarify, Esperanza is your second recording as a leader. Your first recording, Junjo, is a collaboration with drummer Francisco Mela and pianist Aruan Ortiz.
Esperanza Spalding, photo by Johann Sauty
You were born in Portland, Oregon and raised by your mother. Let’s talk about your mother and the influence she has had on you both personally and professionally. Was your mother musically inclined?
Yeah! My mother should run for president! Actually, she was a vocalist. She was invited to go on the road with a show but then she became pregnant with my brother. That ended her professional career. When I was seven or eight she enrolled in a professional music program but by that time she had been away from the music for so long that it was difficult for her to catch up to the rest of the class. I used to accompany and afterwards, I would try to play the lessons at home.
You started playing the violin at the age of four …
Actually I was five
How old were you when you mother enrolled you in the music program for inner-city kids?
I think I was eight or nine. By the way, I also played the oboe and the clarinet.
It was nothing to brag about Funny story: I practiced on the oboe every single day but no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t get it. When I finally returned the instrument I learned that it was defective, it didn’t work … there was something wrong with the keys! Anyway, I never got a second whack at it!
Eventually you switched to the bass and hooked up with a group of serious musicians who “kicked your butt into getting serious.”
Yeah, there was one guy in particular. His name was Thara Memory. I was terrified of him! He would look at my compositions and yell, “No, get serious!” Later, he chilled out and became one of my mentors.
And then there were the “cats” in the blues band.
Yeah, Sweet Baby James and The Original Cats.
Are they still around?
I think Sweet Baby James is still around. As long as he can stand up he’ll be doing his thing.
Then it was off to Portland University and the Berklee College of music, where you “aced” the audition and received a scholarship. Tell me about your “defining moment” with (guitarist) Pat Metheny.
Hilarious. I don't know if he even remembers the conversation! For him it was so nonchalant and for me it was so huge! I was just talking to a friend about this. When you're looking for an answer the tiniest thing becomes the most significant thing. Anyway, the conversation took place at Berklee when Gary Burton and Pat Metheny were producing a record by the student ensemble. Everybody had left the studio and I was there, probably practicing and Mr. Metheny walked in and asked me what I was planning to do with my life. I told him that I was thinking of leaving school and pursuing a degree in political science. He told me that he meets a lot of musicians, some great, some not so great and that I had (what he called) the “X Factor.” Meaning, that if I chose to pursue a career in music and I applied myself, my potential was unlimited.
How did that make you feel?
Mind you, he didn’t say I was “great.” He said if I worked hard I could make it, which is what it’s all about. Any creative pursuit is a lifelong process.
At Berklee you also met and/or shared the stage with Patti Austin, Joe Lovano, Michel Camilo and Dave Samuels. As a student and the youngest faculty member at Berklee, do you see yourself as a jazz artist/jazz educator?
You know it's funny how much is missing in music education. Anytime you take a Western history music class and Johan Sebastian Bach’s name comes up they speak about the fact that a lot of his music was improvised. But since we really can’t hear it people play it as is. When you think about that it makes you go, “What?” What I mean is, Western music is based on improvisation, but it's never really talked about.
Funny you should mention that, there's a book by Alex Ross called The Rest is Noise – Listening to the Music of the 20th Century that talks about that very subject. People seem to forget that classical music did not begin as music for the “bourgeois,” it was intended for the masses! And often times the audiences were downright rowdy!
On another note, how do you characterize your music? If I walked into a record store where would I find your music?
When Norah Jones made her first recording it was placed in the jazz category. When it started selling it was placed in the Pop category. So the question then becomes, what genre is she? Certainly not jazz.
Touche! What is the one thing that you would like everyone to know about Esperanza (the recording)?
I want everyone to know that it is just the tip of the iceberg. My objective was to create a record that contains a lot of the creative forces that exist in jazz and improvised music. Also, to create music that someone with a developed ear or someone who just wants to enjoy the music can appreciate. Like Betty Carter once said, “Jazz ain't nothing but soul” and it's true. We put our hearts and soul into the music.
That definitely comes across.
Thank you man, I appreciate that!
I like your renditions of “Punto de Areia” and “Body and Soul.” How hard was it to translate the lyrics of “Body and Soul” from English to Spanish?
That's a good question. We aren't allowed to change the poetry, so we had to do a little translation. If we could have messed with the poetry a little it would have helped but for copyright reasons we couldn’t.
How many of the tunes are original compositions?
I think it's nine tunes altogether. Also, there are two songs that are not on the record that will only be available through iTunes. Actually, those are two of my favorite songs.
But I won’t be able to download the tunes until May 20th, when the recording is released.
in a past interview, you were adamant about the fact that you wanted to be judged on the quality of your work, not by your gender. Historically speaking, the music industry has not been very kind to women. Thus far, how has it been for you?
Well, for me it’s been fine. The tricky part is taking responsibility for your self. It’s really easy to say, “Everybody treats me like a woman!” and it’s true, however many women make the mistake of over sexualizing themselves. The hard thing, in the beginning, is to learn how to present your self in a totally professional way so that you're not inviting any of that. There's a way to behave where you are not over sexualizing yourself as a woman, but it's hard to learn because in most situation it's to your benefit.
Given your appearance, you were bound to run into those kinds of situations.
Every woman that’s pretty knows how to use it, the tricky thing is to know how not to use it! But really, really, really, tricky part is to make sure that your music is together like any other man. And then when you present yourself, you have to do it totally professionally and platonically, if there is such a word. Once you learn how to present yourself, respect yourself, and have faith in your music, it's not hard to do.
Thinking back, the only other woman I can recall who plays the bass and sings is Me’shell …
Ndegeocello! I love her!
She’s amazing. I love the name of her new recording The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams!
Let’s talk about your band.
On the recording or my working band?
Let’s start with the band on the recording.
Otis Brown on the drums, Leonardo Genovese on the piano … he’s amazing! I know somebody huge is going to grab him soon, so I am just enjoying my time with him, Jamey Haddad on percussion, drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez plays on half of the songs. Unfortunately, two of the songs that are “killin’” are not on the record, Ambrose Akiamusire on trumpet, Donald Harrison on saxophone and Gretchen Parlato (and Otis) on background vocals.
Isn’t there a guitarist on one of the tunes?
The current band is Otis, Leo and a guitarist named Ricardo Vogt, he’s from Brazil and he’s phenomenal.
You obviously have an affinity for Brazilian music.
Yeah, I love it.
Just to backtrack for a moment, where are you from? What’s your heritage?
I am from Portland, Oregon. My father is African-American and my mother is Welsh, Native American and Hispanic.
You just returned from Europe …
Yes, I performed at a jazz festival in France.
How was it?
It’s beautiful. It’s always amazing to be around your peers and other musicians that you admire. It was really cool. We got to see Wayne Shorter before we played.
Wayne is amazing. The minute he puts a horn to his lips you know it’s him.
I don’t say this too often but Wayne Shorter is one of my musical heroes. I love everything he’s done and all the facets of his career. He’s a perfect example of what can happen when you spend your whole life following your own muse. He’s been doing it for what, forty-five years?
Something like that. You are scheduled to appear at The JVC Jazz Festival in New York on June 25th.
I’ll be there!
Is there anything you would like to add before we close?
Yes, but it doesn’t have anything to do with music.
Everybody should read and everybody should think more than they read.
Like Sam Cooke said, “If you don’t read history and you don’t know what’s going on in the world what are you going to put in your music?” Because your stuff probably isn’t as hip as you think it is. You have to know what’s going on!
Thank you for speaking with Jazz.com and good luck on the release of Esperanza. I should mention that your upcoming performance at the JVC Jazz Festival will take place at The New York Society for Ethical Culture.