Posted September 30, 2014 by Jeff in Tunes

Esperanza Spalding: Anything can happen

Esperanza Spalding by Johann Sauty
Esperanza Spalding by Johann Sauty

A favorite of President Obama, who asked her to play at his Nobel Peace Prize concert in 2009, jazz singer and bassist Esperanza Spalding surprised everyone when she won a Grammy for Best New Artist in 2011. The award-winning album, 2010’s Chamber Music Society, featured gorgeous ballads and gentle jazz tunes. On 2012’s Radio Music Society she loosens things up, delving into R&B on the opening track, “Radio Song,” and letting her funk flag fly on “Black Gold.” Spalding, who is embarking on a short two-week tour to celebrate her 30th birthday, recently phoned from Brooklyn.

Have you always done a birthday tour?
No. It’s the first time. I just thought it would be more fun than a party. I can spread the love that way too.

And what is it like to be turning 30?
It feels like one year different than 29. I think it’s awesome. For women, that’s a really significant age. It’s a coming of age, so to speak, like a second adolescence where you step up to the next level of owning your shit.

You learned to play at a really early age. Was there a turning point where you knew music would be a career?
You wonder that every day. When your livelihood is tied with your passion, it gets a little dangerous. Part of selling something means you are producing product that someone wants to pay for. When you’re an artist, your passion can lead you in any direction. You don’t know what the next inspiration will be. What can distinguish an artist from an entertainer is that an artist can serve the one master of their creative inspiration. There’s a chance that no one will not like what you do. I think that’s pretty healthy. It keeps you honest. Sometimes [for me] the creative challenge can be, “I have this idea for a way I want to perform or play or the type of poetry or sound I want to mess with. How can I frame or present it in a way that other people will dig what I’m trying to say?” It’s like being an editor. The filmmaker has this vision and captures the design and all this dialogue and puts it in a frame. The editor has to organize it in a way that the viewer will know what the hell the director wanted to say.

You wear those two hats as an artist. Some people lean more to one side or another. Some people just don’t care.

I always think it’s encouraging when a record gets critical acclaim and then sells too. That doesn’t always happen.
[Not getting attention] can be a luxury too. Say you’re a band or musician and you put out this record that doesn’t make a big noise. In a way, you’re almost freer to experiment with the next thing because nobody is waiting for you to do the next thing. However the cookie crumbles, it’s all good if you’re in the game to make some creative shit. It’s like Duke Ellington said, it’s always going to be a small demographic that wants to engage with highly creative stuff. The good news is that there’s always a demographic of people who want you to hear you do some creative stuff. I think my career is in coming up with creative, on-the spot music.  I think there’s always an audience for that. Even if one record doesn’t sell very well or one record does sell really well, my audience is an audience that comes out to be surprised and observe and engage with three musicians who are living on the edge. To me, the most exciting about improvised music is that you’re watching an improv routine. It’s like improv theater. We’re all co-creating a cohesive storyline in real-time by the skin of our teeth and it ends up sounding pretty beautiful. There are infinite possibilities and that’s the cool thing about signing up to be a creative explorer.

I think you played some piano in addition to bass. What made you chose the bass?
I would say spiritually or psychologically, I’m an airy person. I’m really bubbly and flitty. I think one of the reasons why I’m attracted to the bass is that it’s very grounding. It’s low and solid and the anchor of the music. It’s the lowest common denominator in the band. That’s the way I wanted to express what was coming out. It was mostly that instrument and the world of improvised music that it opens up. I loved the challenge of that instrument. Now I love the challenge of it physically. Creative people will work with whatever is in their hands and that’s what has remained in my hands. Anything can happen. It was the inevitable unfolding of events and I think I stayed with it for spiritually grounding reason.

I read somewhere that you model you career on those of Madonna and Ornette Coleman. Care to explain?
For different reasons. What I admire about Madonna is this ever emerging butterfly. Madonna [has an ability] to constantly re-emerge and redevelop. She always has a different sound and approach and philosophy. I think it’s so incredible. It’s much harder to do than she gets credit for. She fully owns whatever her vision is for that stage. That’s badass and I really admire that. I admire the way Ornette Coleman heard something and just did it. He found like-minded spirits in his first and second band and they got on board with stuff that no one had heard and finding a community and market for this new music. He was like, “I hope you like it, but if you don’t, I’ll keep doing carpentry — Jesus was a carpenter.” Those are two extremes. I also deeply admire Wayne Shorter and David Bowie. I would add them in there too. Within them there is a common denominator that I really admire. It’s like “What if?” It’s completing that sentence and owning it. And owning your manifestation and not apologizing for your art.

Radio Music Society is very accessible. It’s a jazz album with appeal for both jazz fans and rock fans.
I think all jazz records that have come out in the last ten years — unless they were expressly efforts to sound like period pieces — have elements of lots of other genres. I think my record was marketed in that way so people heard it that way. I wanted to play with those people and those songs. I wanted room to improvise. I did pose a question going into it. Is there a way to take these ideas and these players in a way it could end up on the radio? The answer was no for that album. It was just a hypothesis. It was a fun hypothesis to work with. It was a challenge and fun challenge to do it. I wanted everything to be fluid. The product is the album.

 Upcoming 2014 Tour Dates

Oct 1

Oct 2

Oct 3

Oct 4

Oct 6

Oct 8

Oct 9

Oct 10

Oct 11

Ridgefield, CT – Ridgefield Playhouse

Glenside, PA – Keswick Theater

Boston, MA – Berklee Performance Center

Northampton, MA – Calvin Theatre & Performing Arts Center

Durham, NC – The Carolina Theatre

Alexandria, VA – The Birchmere Music Hall

Buffalo, NY – The Center of the Arts, University of Buffalo

Toronto, ON – Queen Elizabeth Theatre

Cleveland, OH – Playhouse Square


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].