Esperanza Spalding: Redefining Production

The bassist, composer and bandleader on her innovative recent "pop-up" album, "Exposure"

Esperanza Spalding (photo by Carmen Daneshmandi)

Last September, Esperanza Spalding found and executed a new concept of live improvised music. The bassist and vocalist, 33, gave herself a 77-hour window in which to compose, record and produce a full album—with special guests including pianist Robert Glasper and singers Lalah Hathaway and Andrew Bird (who also plays violin)—and live-streamed the entire process as a Facebook Live video. The resulting record, Exposure (Concord), saw a limited release split between 7,777 vinyl and CD copies. (The run sold out during pre-order, before the live-stream had ended; the album is not available for digital download or on streaming services.) Spalding felt that the project’s primary artistic values were its spontaneity and viewers’ in-the-moment experience of its creation; she didn’t want to cheapen either with a mass-marketed reproduction. Nonetheless, it’s a strong work that is also an important document of Spalding’s innovative ideas.

Ahead of the release, Spalding spoke with JazzTimes about her new take on improvisation, how the visual component becomes part of that improvisation and why she considers Exposure a major turning point in her artistic development. MICHAEL J. WEST

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JazzTimes: What was the inspiration for the Exposure project?
Esperanza Spalding:
To get us out of the way of creation. To get marketing timelines out of the way, to remove everything that exists in between the act of creating and the act of sharing what you’ve created. When we did it they were happening simultaneously, so there was nothing between us.

What kind of pressure does that put on you?
There’s a vivifying force from the live audience, especially for improvisers, where your senses are heightened. It’s something similar to the survival instinct, because you know that everything is being heard by another person, and you have to deal in real time with what’s been done. You can’t go back. So, not pressure per se, but we definitely found a way to recreate that vivifying force that a live audience gives us. Even though they weren’t in the room, knowing that they were watching did recreate that sense.

Knowing that audience was there, did you approach it from an angle of making a live or live-in-studio record?
I mainly approached it from the angle of “How am I going to get this done? How am I going to find the resources to make this actually happen?” Because they don’t exist in the record-label model. There’s not room to make profit, for example, because it’s a limited release.

In the case of ourselves as musicians, we’ve already spent all this time absorbing, studying, practicing so much shit, and the whole point is to come in there as yourself, work with whatever comes out and capture it. So that part didn’t need a lot of prepping. A lot of my energy and focus was spent figuring out how to pay for it and let people know about it.

You had booked Andrew Bird, Lalah Hathaway and Robert Glasper in advance. Does that mean you had some basic concepts for where you wanted to go with the music?
No. I originally had a long list—to be fair, Lalah and Robert and Andrew were at the top of it—and those were the only three who were down and available. I let them know that I might be working on something else when they arrived and I might not be able to immediately start with them. I think with Andrew and Lalah’s songs, I had sketched out an idea about 30 minutes before they got there. In Robert’s case, I had sketched out something earlier in the morning.

But did you end up bringing in ideas that you’d been thinking about before that?
I don’t know.

The mysteries of the creative process?
Yeah. You’ve got to embrace a certain level of “Fuck it, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m going to make what I believe, I’m going to make what I want to see, and I’m going to do my best to encourage other people to pay me to do that.” There was no narrative to this project, per se, other than how we were going to do it. “This is what we heard, this is what we thought at this moment, and here it is for you. You just have to trust that we’re holding ourselves accountable. We’re striving to create something out of nothing, and we want that something to be beautiful.” Beyond that, I didn’t make any promises to myself or anybody else. That, as a practice and a creative process, is very important to me right now, and this is a way that I could share that with other people.

Were you satisfied with the practice and process? Is it something you’d want to do again?
I wasn’t satisfied with the process in that it was difficult to get the regular entities of the music business—manufacturers, distributors—to understand what it is that I was trying to do, and get them to pay for it. It was really a struggle. I can dig it, because they’re a business and I’m not, so their bottom line is different from my bottom line. But it’s really kind of amazing how much resistance comes up between the moment of conception and the moment of delivery. I think just like a planet moving in space, a certain amount of gravity is needed to keep you from just flying off into the void. I don’t mind a little resistance, but when it’s so much that it’s actually stanching the creative endeavor, then I don’t want that. That was a big eye-opener: I move faster than this infrastructure supports.

Once we got in the space, all that legwork ahead of time was worth it. It was perfect, and beautiful; we need new words to describe what we did. I wouldn’t change any of it. Well, I might have wanted a more comfortable bed. Because what I slept on was miserable. But other than that, it was right on.

Do the Exposure tracks exist only as this moment in time? Or do they become part of your repertoire, something you’ll recreate on a concert stage?
I’m really hoping to do a tour in the spring so that I can announce to the world that I’m a visual performer now as much as a music performer. I think this project is a perfect segue to that context, and I plan to find a way where people in each city can improvise with me in creating the stage show. I really want to explore how improvisation and spontaneous creations work out in three dimensions—with people’s bodies, with sets, with geometry on the stage.

What I know that I do not want to do anymore is stand up in front of a microphone and do a preordained list of songs. That format is just not inspiring to me anymore. The basic idea of creation as a process of nothing becoming something before your very eyes, with the only added ingredient being human ingenuity or creativity, I think that’s a very clear concept that you can express visually on the stage, and I hope we get to do that.

If not, well, Exposure was initially intended just to be this project, this moment in time where it happened and we live-streamed it, end of story. So if a tour’s not possible, that’s OK. The next tour will be the segue.

Do you imagine interacting improvisationally with lighting and effects people the way you would with a band?
For sure. I’m having this conversation with a beautiful creative collective in New York, and one of the things we’re talking about is how spontaneous collaboration between lighting or set designers or choreographers can happen in the same way that Exposure happened between musicians. I’m thinking a lot about how to create that environment where we’re in a space, creating in real time, and every time it happens it’ll be different because it’ll be responding to the input of the people in each city.

We’re accepting that what we come up with may be different than what we might have come up with if we’d had months and months of preparation, but that what we lose in preparation we make up for in the vivifying effect of improvising. I think it’s worth the trade.