Esperanza Spalding: Character Study

Under a conceptual guise, the bassist-composer crafts her best and most fully realized album yet

Esperanza Spalding
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Esperanza Spalding
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There was something both adventuresome and deeply comforting about a set I took in late last year at the Village Vanguard. It featured ACS, the all-star trio of pianist Geri Allen, bassist Esperanza Spalding and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, a group that has been active for over four years now, since surfacing as a kind of addendum to Carrington’s Grammy-winning The Mosaic Project. That album was a genre-hopping, multigenerational celebration of jazz womanhood, which also makes ACS a feminist statement of sorts, though its epistle goes un-preached. Like the most effective political arguments, the value of ACS is self-evident.

The band defined the self-aware elasticity that descends from Bill Evans’ trios and Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet-postbop, in a word-throughout a program of unimpeachable repertoire: Wayne Shorter’s “Masqualero” and “Virgo”; Eric Dolphy’s “Miss Ann”; Bob Dorough and Fran Landesman’s “Nothing Like You,” the oddball closer to Davis’ 1967 LP, Sorcerer. More so than the last ACS performance I heard, at the Town Hall in 2013, Spalding’s presence was a model of collaborative confidence. She battened down the harmonic hatches whenever Allen began playing outside the changes or Carrington chopped the beat up, and her soloing, amply allotted, found her matching powerful physical grace with impressive lyricism. Her spotlights became something to look forward to, and a lengthy bout of wordless scatting put the packed-out basement firmly under her command. Within a band that projects as a collective she stole the show, but the entire enterprise was successful in the most straightforward manner; a tourist in search of the best current jazz in the jazz capital of the world could hardly have done better.

Personally, the performance felt like a reprieve of clear-eyed understanding, in light of a conversation I’d had with Spalding a day prior, at a coffee shop in Brooklyn. There, questions often begat more questions-big ones, about things like artistic intention and authenticity and the trappings of recognition-to the point where I wasn’t sure what I had after 50 minutes. A strange, sinking feeling settled in as I walked toward the train.

Spalding, 31, was there to promote her new album, Emily’s D+Evolution, a nebulous concept piece that nonetheless sounds like an excellent contemporary jazz-rock record, with state-of-the-art musicianship and (mostly) palatable lyrics about love and betrayal. Released through her longtime home, Concord, after being shopped around, the album was re-recorded in front of a studio audience after the material had been developed further onstage. The corresponding live show, replete with sketches and other theatre elements, has also changed by wide margins, most recently being refined with the help of director and playwright Will Weigler. These are unusual logistics, but Spalding was easygoing about detailing them. Elsewhere, when tackling the muse that is this concept of D+Evolution, things got trickier-cagey, but also earnest. “I’ll say it like this; this is what Wayne [Shorter] said,” she began, invoking her North Star and jazz’s champion of bewildering aphorism. “He said, ‘Taking the best of the past and using it as a flashlight into the future.’ I think that’s a really important element-taking the best from the past.”

She went on to attribute another image she finds helpful, one of outstretched arms that seek a meaningful equilibrium between the noble and primitive. “That is ‘evolution’; it’s not one-directional,” she explained. “It’s not that we’re always striving to become ‘better’ or ‘higher’ or more evolved spiritually or whatever.”

Struggling, I asked for an illustration of how the concept might relate to one of the new songs in particular, and Spalding demurred-“I wouldn’t say any one song can embody an idea that large”-before settling on “One.” “Again, let it be interpreted how people want to interpret it, but I would say there’s a question posed, and it’s set up with, I know about operating from my civilized mind, from my college-educated brain, and I know what it feels like to indulge in the primal,” she said. “I know what those two feelings are when it comes to love, and I’ve explored them both. And they’ve gotten me to certain places, so is there a version of love, of romance, that’s neither, or a singularity that shows me the extremes of those two, or a singularity in the middle that’s more than either or more than both? Fortunately, art exists. Art exists to describe and explain things that don’t survive well under literal explanation.”

The character Emily, who “came to move and be loud and talk about D+Evolution,” took Spalding’s middle name and arrived at the bassist as a stroke of inspiration without a backstory. For now, at least, she’s to be understood via the work. “I don’t know what Emily’s like,” Spalding responded when I asked if she finds this project to have an edge of cynicism not found in her previous songwriting. “She’s like what she’s like. That’s why the art shows it. Do you know what you’re like? You know what you think you’re like. … I don’t know, man. But I think that the art does, and I think that it portrays that.”

“It’s like when you read any introduction to Euripides’ plays,” she said later. “Now, a scholar of Greek tragedy will analyze what he understands Euripides’ intention to be. But we don’t have an interview with Euripides, and there are going to be five or six interpretations of what he means in that play. You don’t have to trust shit, but if you read the play and it moves you, then you trust his intention. And you trust that even if I don’t get this at first, there’s something relevant here. And I’m asking for the same trust on Emily’s behalf.”

••••

Almost since the start of her recognition as a public figure, and well before her work required such shows of conversational force, the stakes of an interview with Esperanza Spalding have seemed higher than one with any of her jazz peers. She’s one of very few contemporary jazz musicians whose career flaunts the landmarks we might better associate with pop stardom. A precocious talent raised by a single mother in Portland, she earned a scholarship to Berklee College of Music, where she ended up teaching before her classmates had graduated. There she also studied with saxophonist Joe Lovano, an invaluable mentor whose working group Us Five Spalding joined in 2008.

That same year she entered the mainstream jazz conversation with her second album, Esperanza, which showcased her stocks in trade as a performer and a songwriter: lithe yet powerful bass technique; a sunny, unassuming, slender singing voice; smart, effective use of harmony; and a wide-ranging palette of cultural influences-she sang in English, Spanish and Portuguese-that nonetheless seemed to channel specific artists, eras and even recordings, namely Hermeto Pascoal, heyday Stevie Wonder and Wayne Shorter’s Native Dancer LP. Two high-profile performances made possible by President Obama followed in 2009, and in August of 2010 she released Chamber Music Society, a collection of accessible art songs. The following February she became a very famous person very quickly, winning Best New Artist at the 53rd Grammy Awards-the first jazz artist to do so-and feeling the online fury of Justin Bieber’s minions. To look back on that win now, just a few short years later but with the threat of President Trump looming, almost feels nostalgic, a triumph for authenticity in the first term of hope and change. For Spalding, it endures as a pat on the back rather than a big break. “Nothing feels that different,” she said plainly. “I do the same things. I play in the same kinds of venues. I don’t know. I don’t really [inquisitively] care. What I care about is people caring about my work. And obviously that many NARAS members voting on my behalf really is heartwarming; it’s really encouraging.”

But that kind of support “doesn’t bring any value to the quality of your productivity, in and of itself,” she went on. “And it may be a hindrance; maybe you want to keep getting that, so you’re trying to figure out a way to keep those people engaged in the way they were before.”

No one should accuse Spalding of such pandering, even if her career has taken on elements of pop-music videos; calculated aesthetic changes, like Emily’s thick-rimmed glasses and braids over Spalding’s trademarked Afro; or the personable sparring of this very interview. She put her electric playing out front and followed her Grammy win with Radio Music Society in 2012, a clever meta exercise in crossover jazz featuring enough top improvising talent to fill out a festival program-from Lovano, Jack DeJohnette and Billy Hart to Lionel Loueke, Gretchen Parlato and Justin Brown. The album opens with a “Radio Song” that stretches beyond six minutes, and the inherent irony there certainly isn’t lost on Spalding. “I know it’s not going to end up on the radio anyway; that’s not the point,” she said. “The point is that was a fun challenge, like, ‘Wow, how do you arrange this shit so it sounds like a quote-unquote radio song?'”

••••

Spalding has a gift for constructing projects in a way that makes them both self-contained and inarguably her own, and Emily’s D+Evolution follows suit. Perhaps due to personal predilections for rock and askew R&B, it’s my favorite of her recordings. Metal-edged funk marks much of it sonically, and there are delightful evocations if you look for them: Prince, Funkadelic, Living Colour and Cream, a harmonically open power trio at the album’s core. But Spalding is reluctant to even approach analysis of the actual music, at least in a way that points to source material. “That’s how those songs needed to sound for that character, for Emily as an expression of myself,” she said. “It wasn’t like a conscious decision. How the music ends up sounding grows out of the project; it grows out of the content; it grows out of the lyrics and the character and the stories the character is telling.”

A brief phone call to Matthew Stevens, however, the fine guitarist whose savvy choices in tone ramp up the album’s immediacy, confirmed my suspicions. “She’d been working on an entirely new set of music, and she was really listening to a lot of Blind Faith and Cream and guitar-heavy classic rock bands with a large component of improvisation,” he recalled. “We sort of connected over a mutual love of Ginger Baker. She spoke about how a lot of these [rock] musicians during that time were listening to a lot of jazz music.” But Emily’s doesn’t convince you that Spalding could stand to make an actual rock record, in the same way that Radio Music Society can’t possibly be considered alongside the minimalist grooves of current R&B. Even in new songs as hook-filled as “Unconditional Love,” “Good Lava” or “Judas,” the arrangements and the musicianship don’t sit still long enough to register as pop. It’s hard not to hear Berklee or even Native Dancer, which is probably why Spalding’s career has sought its own level, earning her headlining gigs at respected clubs, theaters and festivals without making her as famous as one might have predicted five years ago. Neither critics’ darling nor celebrity, she enjoys a tier of commerce that allows for ambition but also self-sufficiency. In 2016, that’s a noble feat. “I want to make enough money to do the things I want to do,” she said. “Because it costs money to pay people. … I don’t want to have to go and write a bunch of grants to do the things I want to do, because I don’t think like that ahead of time, and I wouldn’t want to lie.”

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