Esperanza Spalding: Star Time

A definitive profile of jazz's great commercial hope

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Esperanza Spalding
By Carlos Pericás
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Esperanza Spalding
By Sandrine Lee
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Esperanza Spalding with her Best New Artist Grammy in 2011
By Steve Granitz
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Esperanza Spalding, left, with the indie-pop band Noise for Pretend in early 2002
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Esperanza Spalding
By Carlos Pericás

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In 2008, before the Grammy award and the concept albums came along, we thought we had a pretty good sense of what Esperanza Spalding meant to us: She was the most impressive singing jazz bassist in memory, an ambassador for improvised music with chops to match her charm. Now things aren’t so clear.

Appearing at the White House in early 2009 for the first of her three performances before President Obama, Spalding was introduced, not inaccurately, as “the brightest young star on the jazz horizon.” When she became the first jazz musician to win the Grammy for Best New Artist in February 2011, upending Justin Bieber and landing on a cloud of stardust, that narrative graduated to the mainstream. The Chicago Tribune wondered, “Can Esperanza Spalding lure new audiences to jazz?” BBC News called her the “Bright Young Hope of Jazz.”

But as she ascends, the horizon as Spalding perceives it creeps further into the great beyond. Slowly but surely, the jazz world is realizing that she may have already moved past its boundaries. At the very least, she is ignoring them.

On a mild afternoon in early December, Spalding and I meet for coffee in Greenwich Village. She’s sporting a sleeveless leather jacket over her wispy frame, topped with a scarf of faded rainbow hues. Her famously sumptuous Afro is flattened and tied into a tiny, neat bun—a sort of counterintuitive disguise that emphasizes her sharp features. When she speaks, Spalding leans forward in her chair; she’s constantly catching up with her thoughts, exhaling her words quickly and drawing in truncated breaths.

She suggests that the principal reason she wears the badge of jazz musician is that it’s the most flexible one available. “I don’t think I speak on behalf of the jazz community at large, nor do I represent the jazz community at large,” she says. “There are basic elements within the music I do that are universal tenets of jazz music—but I don’t even know that those are what most people are getting excited about anyway.”

With the arrival of her two most recent albums, 2010’s Chamber Music Society and the newly released Radio Music Society, both on Heads Up, it’s become clear that trying to understand Esperanza Spalding as “this” type of musician who makes “that” type of music is going to be futile. We ought to approach her from the other direction: Every bit of work she offers is just another light she’s turned on for us, illuminating one more room where she’s been laying her plans and charting her way.

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Esperanza Spalding was born on Oct. 18, 1984, less than three weeks before Ronald Reagan secured a second term as president of the United States. Her father became ensnared in the penal system—she never knew him growing up—so Spalding and her brother, Hoben, were raised by their mother alone. The family migrated among a variety of Portland, Ore.’s poorest neighborhoods; on occasion, Spalding spent nights in the bathtub, swaddled in blankets as the frigid crack of gunshots rang out in the street.

But looking back, what she recalls most vividly is her mother’s wisdom, one borne of relativism and respect. The order of the household was discussion, not denial, of their surroundings. In a 2010 interview with Al Jazeera, Spalding remembered that “my mom was able to explain what was happening around us clearly, in a way that a child could understand, and relate it to what it meant more significantly as part of our society. ‘This is how something like this exists. It’s not a prostitute, it’s a prostituted woman.’ … Not always being like, ‘Don’t look at that, that’s bad,’ [but rather,] ‘This is what it is, we’re here, this is why that’s there, and there’s better things out there. I love you. Get an education.’”

When she was 5, Spalding watched Yo-Yo Ma perform on television, and she became enrapt. Her mother enrolled her in a community classical orchestra, where she took up the violin and studied under Thara Memory, a preeminent trumpeter and educator in Portland who worked with Dizzy Gillespie and James Brown. To him, Spalding’s prowess “wasn’t hard to pick up on and recognize. Everything you put in front of her, she got.” He was struck by Spalding’s impulse to chart her own course. “From 8 years old, she always was writing,” he says. “I remember she brought me something, and I just thought it was utterly ghastly and I just tore it up and threw it in the trashcan. Well, that next week, she had gotten it out, pressed it down, pieced it together and gotten the kids to play it. She said, ‘See?’”

At school, though, Spalding came up against a more rigid pedagogy, and often felt herself drifting from her teachers’ view. Add to that Spalding’s autoimmune deficiency disorder, which often kept her at home. She missed enough days to be expelled from the public school, so from fifth grade on, Spalding was home-schooled. To be more precise, she became an autodidact. “My mom worked. She would come home in the evening and check my work and I would cook her dinner,” Spalding says.

She also found employment, often working on weekdays in the time when she wasn’t studying. “When I was 13, the only work I could do was at a co-op grocery store. So I did. And then before that, I had my babysitting service, with my own business cards,” she remembers. “That interested me from a really young age—that was my thing: I like to work.”

When she reached high school age, Spalding applied for a scholarship to the Northwest Academy, an arts-focused private school. She was admitted, and then quickly disappointed. “It just seemed like a depository for ill-behaving children; if they were creative and they could pay, they could go,” she says. She dropped out to take the GED and bore onward.

But during her brief time at the academy, Spalding had taken a monumental turn. One day, she picked up the school’s standup bass and started pawing around, awed by its hushed caverns of overtone and melody. Brian Rose, a music teacher at Northwest Academy, sidled over and traced the notes of the blues scale on its neck, then suggested she invent something by ear. It was the 15-year-old’s first experience with jazz improvisation. “She got her hands on that bass and the light just turned on right there,” Rose remembers.

Soon after, he initiated a jazz improvisation class with just four students, including Spalding. Within months she had graduated to playing on professional gigs around Portland. “She just loved being around those kinds of cats,” Rose says, referring to the city’s hardened jazz players. “She had no fear of being ambitious. So if any heavies called her up and said, ‘Hey, would you tour with me?’ she would just go. … She was capable of doing anything, and she just had very few fears. I credit her brother and her mom for being very good that way.”

Just as Spalding was joining the jazz circuit, Rose got wind of an indie-pop band that was looking for a standup bassist. Spalding didn’t have much interest in the genre, but once again, Rose held a gate open and she leapt through it. Noise for Pretend, the project of guitarist and vocalist Ben Workman and drummer Christian Cochran, quickly became Spalding’s band, as far as critics and concertgoers were concerned. She pointed her inveterate songwriting habit in a new direction, crafting ballads and bossa-tinged pop tunes that hopscotched between daydreamer whimsy and jaded noir. The band was also her initiation into playing the bass and singing at the same time.

Noise for Pretend signed a contract with the local label Hush Records, whose head insisted that Spalding sing the bulk of the songs on the debut album, Happy You Near. Between her bewitchingly hazy alto and her buoyant, syncopated basslines, Spalding is the album’s most obvious asset and its secret weapon. Happy You Near found some national acclaim, gigs proliferated, and then life swept Spalding forward.

At 16, she moved out of her mother’s home and rented a room in the house Rose shared with his wife. By that time, Spalding was working full-time at a public opinion research firm, so she could afford to pay rent and buy his daughter’s car for $500.

GED in hand, she headed to Portland State University to study bass, but within a year she’d exhausted the school’s resources. “Me and some of my partners, we just said, ‘You’ve got to get out of here. It’s time, you’ve got to go. You’re not going to get one more thing out of this,’” Memory recalls, referring to the Portland jazz scene. So Spalding went to Seattle to audition for Berklee College of Music in Boston, and earned a full scholarship. But it didn’t include a cross-country plane ticket. A friend suggested holding a fundraiser, so Spalding invited everyone she could think of to a benefit concert and performed her way to Boston, where she arrived with about $100 in her pocket.

Memory’s foresight was vindicated; at Berklee, Spalding the artist was born. She zoomed through the curriculum, and by age 20 she had graduated and was teaching at her alma mater. (Along the way, the always encroaching next thing nearly consumed Spalding’s musical career, when she considered quitting to focus on humanitarian pursuits. Pat Metheny took her aside and told her that she had the genius musician’s crucial “x factor,” a precious gem not to be cast away.) In the mid-2000s, she started gigging with Joe Lovano, the tenor great and holder of Berklee’s Gary Burton Chair in Jazz Performance, who first heard her play in a student ensemble. “She had a nice, flowing approach. There was a clarity in her playing from the bass chair that I heard right away,” he says. “From the start, she was coming from somewhere.”

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With the release of her first record, Junjo, which flew serenely under the radar in 2006, Spalding defined a sound that was sturdy and mobile on its own two feet, with a bounding, almost childlike exuberance. Leading a spare acoustic trio, she folded complicated rhythms into each other neatly—9/8 and 5/4 changing lanes into common time without even thinking of turning on the blinker. Two years later arrived Esperanza, Spalding’s Heads Up debut, which put a bit more emphasis on her voice. It’s a high, tissue-paper-thin, fledgling’s voice, with charm and a lack of guile that forces you to root for it even when it flits past its own boundaries. Like Junjo, the record threw together original compositions with Brazilian covers and entries from the jazz canon, in this case a Spanish rendition of “Body and Soul.” The two albums’ differences could be reconciled; both were polyrhythmic and modern, with ideas about how to use the sounds of the global south, especially Central and South America.

But then came the introspective, strings-laden Chamber Music Society, the album that guided her to the Grammys. On Chamber, Spalding’s pastiche was suddenly inundated with new colors, mostly muted grays and browns thrown onto a canvas of classical undertones. No longer did Spalding the jazz musician seem interested in expanding genre; she was trying to ignore it.

Spalding considers this year’s Radio Music Society to be a companion to Chamber, by which she means it’s diametrically different. She originally conceived of releasing the albums simultaneously, maybe as a double-disc set, but like many of her conceptions, that outpaced what was feasible. “For every 1,000 ideas I have, I think I do about two things,” she says.

On the new record, it’s clearer than ever that her three favorite musicians are Wayne Shorter, Milton Nascimento and Stevie Wonder, and not in that order—or, for that matter, any order. The songs have choruses and dance beats and lots of electric bass; lyrically and musically, they’re possessed of a shrewdly urbane magnetism that Spalding has never shown before. And for the first time, she takes on explicitly political themes.

With Radio, Spalding has her sights on something grander than she did with Chamber—far-reaching as a radio wave, and just as immediate. She is reconnecting with the dance rhythms that have defined African-American music from the beginning, celebrating the sounds she grew up hearing, and weighing in on that ever more pertinent question: How does a master musician build upon those traditions amid an urban landscape in which the relevance of radio has all but evaporated? (One way is by embracing the alleged killer of radio stars; Spalding produced what she is calling “short films,” or extended music videos, for every track on the album.)

In that sense, the record is both a paean to FM radio and a call for something stronger than what Clear Channel is feeding us. If the airwaves were a bit less corporate-run and considerably more reliant on the aspects of music that actually enliven us, you might expect Spalding’s new record to be in constant spin on stations across the country this spring.

All of this ought to be telling jazz’s diehards something—what they already knew but didn’t really want to admit. It’s a little like silently realizing that, sure, your girlfriend still loves you, but she’s been across the room dancing with somebody else all night. The reason Spalding took home the Best New Artist Grammy is the same reason why she can’t possibly be what most purists want her to: She won it because she has novelty—a crucial figure in the pop music equation—and that much-maligned asset known as crossover appeal. That’s a term that really means jazz accounts for, at best, a slim majority of an artist’s influences.

Spalding believes in the music’s patron saints; gushes about her first time hearing Cannonball Adderley; even plays in acoustic groups, some relatively straight-ahead, alongside a handful of jazz veterans, from Lovano and Jack DeJohnette to McCoy Tyner. And she’s a zealous advocate for her colleagues in that field. After the Grammy ceremony, cradling her spoils, Spalding told the cameras: “Hopefully, people will realize that there’s things happening in the jazz world that they didn’t know about.” (In our conversation, she adds, “When I talk about Daniel Blake and someone reads that in the Delta magazine, they might think, ‘Oh, I’m going to check him out later.’ I like to think that maybe they do.”)

Yet, more than anything, Spalding’s message to the young jazz musician is that information-age heroes don’t need to descend from a given lineage in a straight, gravitational fashion. She moves gracefully past the imposition of rubrics that the jazz world has used for decades to perpetuate its own past. In her work as a leader, Spalding puts history to use in a vision that’s up-to-the-minute, infectious and decidedly personal.

“I had a dream recently that there were three bowls and they were supposed to be gazpacho, but they really weren’t,” she says, wondering out loud what the heck all of this means, and why she’s telling it to me. “So first I put some diced onions on top of one, and then my inner monologue in the dream was telling me, ‘Yeah, but it’s still not gazpacho.’ Then in the second one I put some sun-dried tomatoes, so it looked like gazpacho, but it was still not. Then in the third one I put some chives. And when you looked at the three bowls, the color and the texture of the soup could have been [gazpacho], but I knew it wasn’t.”

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Late one evening this past January, Esperanza Spalding stood feathered in auburn light on the Village Vanguard stage. She plucked fleet, front-loaded melodies out of the bass and cast sideways grins at her bandmates, the drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and pianist Geri Allen.

The trio was in the midst of breakneck open-heart surgery on Charlie Parker’s “Ah-Leu-Cha,” a polyphonic flurry from the heyday of bebop. The group’s weeklong engagement at the Vanguard in New York City was only its second live run, but the project is one that all three musicians hope to continue. It encompasses a bevy of influences, but more than anything, this trio celebrates jazz as taproot, both a regenerative source and a means to its own end.

It also fights strongly in defense of the notion that, historically and presently, this is communal music. Within the trio, which nominates no one as its leader, “there’s this whole virtuosity level, and then there’s a kind of humanity level. There’s a real concern for the other person. Note to note, silence to silence, it’s beautiful,” Allen says. “And it’s always morphing and shifting.”

Then, of course, there’s the fact that all its members are women who play instruments. (In this band, Spalding doesn’t sing—not with her voice, anyway.) The three musicians first played together on Carrington’s Grammy-winning 2011 album, The Mosaic Project, a powerful disc that she recorded with an all-female cast. It was the drummer’s way of spotlighting some great talents that have crept into the boys’ club of jazz instrumentalism. Spalding confides that she feels a different measure of synergy in an all-woman band: “It’s your whole life experience. There’s some commonality there, just of interacting in the culture that we live in as the sex that you are.” In the trio, she adds, “I feel really free, and really challenged.”

After Spalding won her Grammy in 2011, Slate writer Bill Wyman rationalized the victory with an observation that “very attractive young women always win Grammys.” A few weeks later, comedian Jimmy Kimmel welcomed Spalding onto his show with a series of only half-joking questions about things she ought to feel incapable of. About her celebrating at Prince’s house after the awards ceremony, he fretted, “It seems like you should never go to Prince’s house, [because] he’s got some weird spell over women. They wind up never leaving.” She returned with finesse: “I think he puts an instrument in your hands and you start jamming, and then you don’t see the light of day. That’s what happens.” Looking back, Thara Memory tells me that he was always struck by her drive as a young girl “to be an equal musician, who could stand up and play.”

Spalding says that if her Grammy encourages more women to explore jazz, that is a major victory. “I’m just grateful that more women feel that a life in jazz music is feasible—that they can survive. A life in the music is so rich and so fulfilling, and it’s a pity that so many people that could have had that life didn’t, just because they felt like there was no room for them because they were women,” she says. “Maybe you would say, ‘As women, they’re bringing something new to the table.’ Well, that’s cool, but I think the person that benefits most from having a life in the music is the musicians. And I’m hopeful that more people are going to get to experience that.”

As her profile outgrows the jazz world, Spalding embodies a worthy mentor for young women with all manner of interests—not just because of the skill and acclaim she has accrued but because of how she’s acquired those things. She models an empowered musical path, one that changes directions at a dizzying pace only because she has decided to make it so.

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On that December day when we meet at the café in Greenwich Village, Spalding has an electric bass strapped to her back. She’s just returning from the airport and hasn’t had time to stop at her apartment. Talking at a gallop, she tells me that she’s concerned about her inability to find alone time with the bass these days. “I would love to get better at mental practicing,” she says. Spalding has two homes, one in New York City and the other in Austin, Texas. She chose the latter simply as a place “where I go to retreat and work and study and relax.” When it proved too remote, she acceded and got herself the New York apartment, what she calls a “cardboard box” in the Village. These days, she doesn’t spend much time at either one. For an artist as feverish as Spalding, the Grammy victory and its yawning doorways arrive with perils.

She is a charter member of Joe Lovano’s Us Five, an innovative quintet with an enormous wingspan of sound that grows in fits and waves from its two-drummer core. Among serious jazz observers, the band is a darling: In this magazine’s 2009 Critics’ Picks, Us Five’s Folk Art was named No. 1 album; the following year, the band topped the Jazz Group category in DownBeat’s writers’ poll. But recently, Spalding has prioritized her own work over that of the quintet, and she’s skipped many of the band’s live shows. “Over the last year or so, Esperanza’s really taken off as a leader and a personality,” Lovano says. Bassist Peter Slavov “has been making a lot of gigs that she’s been missing.” Us Five recorded its third record in January, with Slavov playing on some tracks; it’s the band’s first on which Spalding is not the only bassist.

Last year, Spalding recorded with Jack DeJohnette on his recently released Sound Travels. (The NEA jazz master also plays on three tracks on Radio Music Society.) “She really did some great things,” DeJohnette says, before adding that she had been on the go so much that it “took a minute for her to get into” the recording session. Her struggle was “just focusing on being a bassist again, because she’d been doing a lot of work on her project,” he says. “She had a chance to come in and redo some tracks, tighten them up and make them better. And that helped a lot.”

On the Vanguard gig, for all its kinetics and rhapsody, there were moments when Spalding seemed behind the rest of the band; her eyes often fixated on the sheet music, even during standards, and she had a tough time tapping into her signature sense of élan. But just a few weeks later, the first of the Radio Music Society videos premiered on BET’s 106 & Park, and the single, “Black Gold,” leapt across the Internet. It was a reminder about the whole other side of her work, the one where she calls the shots. If her jazz gigs as a sidewoman are getting brushed to the periphery, it’s because she’s got more to say for now as a leader. From the sound of things, it’s hard to fault her for it.

Originally published in April 2012

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