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Esperanza Spalding: Grounded & Inspiring

Roseanna Vitro interviews the bassist, singer and bandleader about her musical development and influences

Esperanza Spalding (photo by Carlos Pericás)
Esperanza Spalding (photo by Carlos Pericás)

In 2011, at the 53rd annual Grammy Awards, the promising 27 year-old bassist, composer and vocalist Esperanza Spalding became the first jazz artist to win “Best New Artist of the Year.” Shouts of pure pride and joy emanated from the jazz ranks, a community which generally pays little mind to the glitz and glamour of the Grammys. For me, the sight of Justin Bieber preparing to accept his award, then hearing the winning name of Esperanza Spalding, brought the feeling of a new day. All things really are possible.

I caught up with Es (her nickname) backstage at the Allen Room in Lincoln Center where Es was preparing to go on stage with two of my oldest friends, Joe Lovano and Judi Silvano. Es would be playing bass and singing in Joey’s “Us Five” Cross Cultural Group. Esperanza was kind enough to make time for a quick interview. I hope I’ll have another opportunity to chat with her again. I came away feeling the future of creative music is secure with a warm and thoughtful female musician like Esperanza leading the way.

Roseanna Vitro: What are your earliest memories of music?

Esperanza Spalding: I distinctly remember the Christmas albums my mom played by Stevie Wonder and Harry Belafonte. It’s so funny, I was only two or three years old and I thought Stevie Wonder was a woman. When I saw his picture I thought, “O my gosh.” Of course when I heard his later stuff it was evident that he was a guy, but at the beginning the timbre and certain qualities of his voice made me think it was a woman singing.

RV: Did your Mom have many records and music in the house?

ES: No, not really. Just those two records and a Roland Hayes record that she would play sometimes with the song, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” She would sing all the time and we would sing in church. The funny thing is that I didn’t think of singing as a thing you would do like a career, until much later. Mom would make up songs and we would sing while cooking or changing someone’s diaper. I would remember songs from children’s programs and I would ask my Mom to sing them while I harmonized with her while we walked our dog.

RV: So you were always singing.

ES: Yeah! It wasn’t like, “My daughter sings.” It was just something that we did.

RV: Who inspired to you to play the bass?

ES: I had been playing violin since I was a kid, but not in school, in local community music programs. I heard YoYo Ma on Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and I wanted to do what he was doing. That’s how I got into the violin. I stuck with it in the Chamber Music Society in Portland. We would play in-school concerts at other schools and we’d meet on Mondays. There was a summer program you could get a scholarship for and it was cheap too. So I attended for 10 years. When I was 15, I went to an arts school that didn’t have a music program. There was a band that rehearsed at the school, although it wasn’t part of the school. For whatever reason, the school bought a bass, I don’t know why they bought it, but it was the only instrument around the school besides their keyboard. I went in one day and I saw it there and asked if I could play it? The music teacher said, “Yes.” So I picked it up and started trying to play scales I’d learned on violin, because that’s what I knew. So the teacher comes in and shows me a blues form i.e.., arpeggiate this for this many bars, then arpeggiate that for this long, and try to land on beat one on the root. From playing a stringed instrument I could figure out a few things even though it was tuned in fourths. I thought, wow this was so cool!

I didn’t have any thought or agenda or wish. It was like I was skipping class. It’s like you’re just curious. Then he taught me this blues progression and then when we played, he said, “This is how jazz music works. There’s a form; there’s a structure. Then you apply the theory to the sound.” It felt so good to play like that. Then he told me what records I should listen to. So then I started playing bass a lot. I really got into it. The music teacher started calling me when other bass players couldn’t show up. I was pretty good. I had pretty good intonation and time (and I say that relative to someone who shouldn’t know anything), I could do okay. I didn’t know very many tunes. I used to go over to my friend Dan Gaynor’s house, who plays piano. He was really important in terms of my singing. I would go to his house and he would teach me tunes. I would sing the melody just to remember the form. I got a scholarship to go study classical bass at Portland State University in the classical program so I did a jazz minor. Dan was enrolled in the jazz minor program too. We became friends and started playing. We would get together and play and he would teach me tunes. He knew about a zillion tunes. I didn’t know melodies yet or how to read chord changes so he would teach me the melody and then show me the roots of the chords. Then through the counterpoint of the melody and the roots, I would learn the harmony and I would sing the melody. Because of that, he said, “Man, you should sing! You have a nice voice, so why don’t you sing? Let’s start a trio; you can sing and play bass, and we can split three persons’ money two ways.” So I said, “Okay, cool,” so we started doing it. He was very significant. I was probably fifteen or sixteen.

Also, there was a rock band. I lied and said I could sing background vocals so I could join the band. They were looking for a bass player and wanted someone who could also sing backup. I really wanted to be on bass, so I said I could do both and then taught myself to sing and play enough to get through the audition. They hired me and we had a pretty good stint for where we were at the time. The music had a lot of harmonic content and the group was interested in integrating theory and musical concepts into what we were doing. Working with Dan Gaynor and playing and singing backgrounds in this little rock band were the two things that got me into the singing and playing.

RV: What advice would you give to middle school or high school students who want to play jazz?

ES: There’s a Mark Levine Book called Jazz Theory. It’s really just theory that most musical genres function off of. It’s fun to get a sense of what’s going on with music anyway. I would suggest getting it and doing two pages a day just to study it and learn to read some basic piano, even if you can only pick out one note at a time. I think it’s really important for all musicians to have a basic ability to read piano music, it’s not like you have to be able to sight read Bach inventions, but just to know where the notes are to pick them out on the piano. Start by reading two pages, then practice the two pages. The next day recap what you’ve done and do a page or two more. I think if you’re starting in middle school or high school just work your way through that book and as you work through it you’ll notice the way you hear and the way you sing, will automatically start to change. It’s like looking at the world and not knowing it’s all blurry. You can make your way through and then you get glasses and everything gets clearer and clearer. I think that’s really important.

RV: Did you feel driven as a musician?

ES: I don’t think of it that way. It kind of doesn’t matter because everybody is so different. Something about being in middle school or high school, it’s not like there’s one thing you need to do. Just being there for the music and thinking of all the different ways you can do music is enough. If you get an opportunity to do anything, like singing in a play or on a gig or at a birthday party or even a party your parents are having, do it. It’s about getting creative with all the ways you can do music. Don’t even think about it as practice. Getting creative about how you can make music as much as possible is the thing, whether it’s getting together with friends and learning tunes, or playing for your family. I always found when I was young that having a performance I was looking forward to and preparing for it was really helpful, even if it was just playing for my mom and some friends.

RV: Are you a naturally disciplined musician?

ES: I think I learned how to be disciplined. One thing I felt was lacking from teachers when I was at an early age was teaching me how to practice, teaching me how to structure an hour or thirty minutes. When you’re thirteen you don’t know how to plan or structure a 30-minute practice session. So actually through trial and error, I sort of figured out different ways to organize my time. Okay, like if I have two hours, I think about the most important things I need to practice and how much time I need to spend on each one and how to focus on it. I wish somebody would have told me how to do this earlier. I wasn’t disciplined, but I could make myself disciplined for a specific goal. I remember hearing a Slam Stewart song. I just loved what he played so much I wanted to be able to play it. It had nothing to do with discipline. He sounded so good, I just wanted to do it.

RV: Did you work with any teachers who particularly inspired you?

ES: Sometimes it’s not inspiration, it’s fear. I wouldn’t want my teacher to think I was an idiot so I would practice before the next week’s lesson. Sometimes people would say, “Oh, you’re very talented.” Then I would come in to do something specific, but they might be disappointed if I hadn’t practiced. I had a talent in one way, being able to hear and emulate things, but I didn’t have a lot of understanding. So whenever that would happen and someone would be disappointed when I didn’t know something, I would take it really hard. I wanted to learn it so next time I would be able to do it. But that’s a process, too.

RV: I like what you said about practicing. I think discipline is about practicing. In today’s world we have amazing technology, but it’s also causing more “Attention Deficit Disorder”. I’ve worked with several students who have a difficult time focusing for more than two minutes at a time with cell phones and ipads constantly updating.

ES: That’s funny. I remember someone was talking to Gabe Britton about this because there was a rumor that he didn’t practice very much. He said, “yeah, I couldn’t practice more than two hours at the time because I had to stand up to play vibes and I would get too tired. I couldn’t practice more than two hours, but the two hours were really focused.” There’s something to be said for that. I believe that a focused thirty minutes every day is more valuable than three hours a day, if you’re scatterbrained. Like something Hal Crook talks about in one of his books that before you practice, get a goal for your practice. Get the sound of what you ultimately want to sound like in your head before you open your mouth or pick up your instrument. Okay, so you plan for this fifteen minutes, know what you want to accomplish and then you start. Just that step which only takes about thirty seconds, can make a fifteen minute, twenty minute or two hour practice session so much more valuable.

RV: Did you study vocal technique?

ES: I studied with Anne Peckham at Berklee College of Music in Boston. She’s a great teacher. I like her as a person and she knows the mechanics so well. She’s someone who can pinpoint what’s in your way without messing with your style.

RV: I feel a good teacher shouldn’t change a student’s natural sound. Good technique is important, but in jazz or pop singing, your idiosyncrasies are a personal signature. You can have solid technique and personality at the same time.

ES: That’s one thing about developing your own practice method too. I think if we come up with our own creative solutions to our own unique questions, inevitably as you’re gaining technique, you’re cultivating your unique combination of materials and approach. So, while on the one hand I think it’s really helpful if someone can teach you how to organize your practice time, how to structure a week-long routine, a month-long routine, a day-long routine, we all have to have our own curiosity. We reach out when something speaks to us and intrigues us, piques our interest and then we figure out a way to make it our own. That’s just as important as knowing every technique in the book. Like, I really like a Pakistani singer and when he comes to his solo, I am thinking, “How did he do that? How did he make that quality?” So that’s something that excites me. So you think, I’m gonna see if I can get these first four bars down and emulate that sound. Then record yourself and mess with it. So it’s like a dancer. That movement you worked on presents itself in your own improvisation or the way that you move in someone else’s piece. I think that’s crucial, to just be curious, and take the time to follow up on the curiosity.

RV: Did you learn any vocalese solos in the style of Eddie Jefferson and Jon Hendricks? I assume most of your vocal improvisation comes from your knowledge of the bass and the music you’ve studied.

ES: I don’t know. I think about what’s the point of soloing? Why the hell do you want to solo? Everybody else has already soloed in the band, so who the hell wants to hear a singer do something that an instrumentalist can usually do with more clarity, more dynamic variation and stronger? That’s just a process that I’ve heard within me. Then I think, “Well, the human voice is distinct.” The human voice, all the things that we do intuitively when we speak, when we sing to a kid or when we hum to a friend, those are the things that through study instrumentalists can emulate with a machine, with an object outside of themselves, translating breath or translating physical motion to try to emulate all the subtleties that we do naturally with the human voice without even thinking about it. I really love the way Ella Fitzgerald would scat and the way Betty Carter would scat. I never thought to emulate what they were doing. I thought they were really good doing a vocal solo. So when I started doing that, there were ideas that I couldn’t play on the bass. I didn’t have the technical facility to do certain melodies, certain ideas that I wanted to try to do.

I like to transcribe. Whenever I transcribe a soloist for the bass, I don’t transcribe it for the sake of being able to play it. It’s like, how does Booker Little play on that dominant chord? How did he make that sound? When I transcribe it I’m trying to hear the sound that he made. Usually I have to sing it first before I can play it. So I’ll play the root and I’ll sing it and sing until I hear the sound and can play it on the bass. I’ll think about what he’s doing, if he’s starting on a melodic minor scale, a half step above the root on a dominant chord. To really hear it I’ll usually play the root and keep singing. I have to hear how the tonalities connect and then I’ll play it on bass while I still have the sound in my ear. So what I’m thinking from years of doing shapes and colors and ideas, the more I hear them, if I want to take a vocal solo, that’s the stuff I want in my solo, that’s the vocabulary you’re developing. Like if you grow up in Texas, you speak differently, so it’s like you can decide what your colloquialisms are going to be. It’s like learning another language, pretty soon if you do it enough, the emotion and thought that you’re hearing, you don’t have to translate any more. You know the words for “thought” or “disgusting,” it’s like the more you study other soloists, harmony and other singers, the less you have to translate. Like the more you ingest it, the less you have to translate as you hear the color or texture that’s missing in the band at that moment. You don’t have to think, you just hear it and bam! You can do it.

Someone like Joe Lovano, what’s so exciting about being around a player like that, is there’s no translating going on. I think it’s all right to be translating because that’s how you learn. Like sometimes you hear a sus chord and you think I want to try this shape on it, like putting this thing I’ve been working on to put it in. Then you’re around someone like Joe and I really feel like there’s no translation going on, it’s like pure and flowing; input and output.

RV: Did you ever hear Joe’s first recording with his Dad, “Big T?” Joe’s dad was a great tenor player and Joey carries on the Cleveland legacy of his father.

ES: No I didn’t. Wow, yes, it can be that natural, just study and applying.

RV: The majority of singers studying jazz today are taught primarily to sing the head and then scat. In the history of jazz singing, vocalists Anita O’Day, Ella Fitzgerald and Carmen McRae would sing the melody but then take a second or third chorus using the lyrics for the solo and scat afterwards. This is becoming a lost art. Do you improvise with lyrics?

ES: I like making up lyrics. No, I don’t follow that form. There’s a story that you’re trying to tell. and what I like to do in my band is challenge myself to improvise both. So sometimes I start a song with a concept like a verse. I like to remind myself it’s an essay and in the first part you tell em’ the essence of what you’re gonna tell em’. I like to make up poetry on the spot and really get into the poetry of the song. Like, how can I set up what’s at stake in this story? I try to blend the story with the harmonic lines that I’m setting up on the bass. I get into the zone of what’s coming up in the song. I think, how can I prep it and set it up before I go into the whole story? That’s fun and challenging; super stimulating, stimulating all the parts of the brain. What you’re saying is stay in the moment, don’t tell everything, but prep what’s coming.

RV: You’re thinking like Bobby McFerrin or Rhiannon. Rhiannon improvises an entire set, totally free improv; lyrics, melody, rhythm off the top of her head. Have you heard or worked with Rhiannon?

ES: Yes, oh yeah I played with her twice. One thing I’ve always wished from many MC’s that I’ve heard who come up with poetry and rhythm on the spot (which is so mind blowing) is what if there were more melodic and harmonic content? Like what if they would build all those layers, kind of like Reggie Watts does. He’s super amazing, coming up with songs on the spot. I like that challenge and the audience loves it too. Then it’s really coming from you.

RV: In closing is there anything you’d like to add?

ES: Well, going out to hear music is really important…

RV: Thank you so much for the time and all the great idea’s you’ve offered today. I hope we can continue another time. I appreciate your time and really loved our conversation.

For more information about Esperanza’s schedule and projects, visit her website.


Junjo – April 18, 2006, on Ayva Music
Esperanza – 20 May 2008 on Heads Up International
Chamber Music Society – August 17, 2010 on Heads Up International
Radio Music Society – March 20, 2012 on Heads Up International Originally Published