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Talking with rising jazz star Esperanza Spalding

Esperanza Spalding courtesy of Montuno Productions.
Photo by Sandrine Lee
Esperanza Spalding courtesy of Montuno Productions.

When bassist/composer/vocalist Esperanza Spalding came to the Dakota in March 2009, she played to a standing-room crowd. That was before the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, where Prince listened from his limo backstage at Mears Park; before her second performance at the White House that year; before Oprah named her one of “10 Women on the Rise.”

It was before she was voted top rising star in the acoustic bass category in the DownBeat Critics Poll (for the second year running; she recently won for the third time); before she made the cover of DownBeat and was profiled in the New Yorker and praised in the Wall Street Journal and featured on NPR; before she released her third (actually fourth) CD.

A daring, romantic album with strings (violin, viola, and cello), “Chamber Music Society” debuted in mid-August as the No. 1 jazz album on iTunes, Amazon, and Billboard’s Heatseeker Chart. Eight of the 11 songs are originals.

Did I mention that Spalding is just 25? Like Trombone Shorty, another jazz star in his 20s, she started early. As a 4-year-old growing up in Portland, Ore., she saw Yo-Yo Ma on an episode of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” and knew she wanted to make music. She taught herself to play violin and joined a community orchestra at age 5. At 15, she found the bass. At 20, she became the youngest-ever faculty member at the Berklee College of Music.

Speaking of Shorty, Spalding hopes to work with him someday.

“When I hear him play, I think — wow! See, now, this is what I’m talking about. It’s not that the average person doesn’t get jazz. His charisma, his mastery of the elements of improvised music and jazz and of his instrument — anyone and their mother-in-law can appreciate it.”

Currently on tour with “Chamber Music Society,” Spalding returns to the Dakota on Sept. 21-22. Amid all the press and brouhaha, despite her being dubbed the new savior of jazz (Norah Jones, anyone?), she’s warm and charming in an interview, with deep ideas and an easy laugh. We spoke by phone in late August.

MinnPost: What made you decide to include strings on your new CD?

Esperanza Spalding: I’ve been curious about writing for strings for many years but never had a distinct objective, or a working string group, or a place to perform and share this music. When I realized I could decide what my next project would be, I felt drawn to a project like this, with a string ensemble and a rhythm section ensemble, and exploring that space between the two worlds. It became a natural, organic exploration of the music.

MP: “Chamber Music Society” feels like a whole idea, a whole album. There’s an arc to it, a story. When you record, do you think in terms of albums or singles?

ES: Hopefully, ideally, every song is good enough to be a single. But I know what you mean. That’s probably one of the benefits of performing a lot. Being a bandleader, you’re always thinking of the set list and the arc of the show. You’re thinking in terms of what works and what doesn’t in terms of creating a full listening experience of an hour or more.

MP: The first song on the CD is “Little Fly,” your setting of a poem by William Blake. Next is “Knowledge of Good and Evil.” That’s a pretty big topic.

ES: It is and it isn’t. Everybody interprets the story of Adam and Eve and the garden and the Tree of Knowledge differently. I find the struggle of discerning between good and evil one of the most interesting aspects of human existence. I feel like our work on this earth as humans is that endless struggle of trying to understand good and evil. So why not write a song about it? People have written a million songs about love, and it seems to me this is just as universal.

MP: Were you raised in a church?

ES: I went to church as a child with my mother, but when she discovered the lessons we were getting in Sunday school, she spent so much time trying to unteach us that she decided maybe we shouldn’t go to that specific church. Unlike most people in this world, my mother has read the Bible through twice. I didn’t grow up in any specific church, but I did grow up with parables and teachings and quotes from the Bible.

MP: Girl question: How do you decide what to wear for a performance?

ES: It depends on what’s in my suitcase. It’s really tricky now, with YouTube and photos everywhere. You don’t want to show up for different gigs wearing the same outfit. I’m thinking mainly of making the most complete show experience. It depends on the venue, the set we’re going to do, what’s in my suitcase, how I’m feeling, whether I’ve shaved my legs or not. I try not to make outfits before I leave my house to go on tour for a month or whatever. I throw a bunch of random things into my suitcase on purpose, so I’m forced to make outfits when I go on the road. It’s an exercise in creativity.

MP: How do you know what to do with your body on stage? The double bass is a big instrument. You’re dancing with a beast.

ES: I don’t think about that. Whatever happens physically is due to the way I have to play or hold myself to sing. That involves practicing how to get this note out on the bass or the voice without too much strain.

MP: You move a lot on stage. That’s a fairly new development in jazz bass playing — not the tradition.

ES: Sometimes it can be a testament to bad technique. In my case it certainly is sometimes. You’re tired, you stop paying attention to technique, you end up going out of your way to do the same amount of work that a little bit of focus and better preparation would allow you to do with much less exertion. Also, artistically there’s more freedom to be expressive. You see it in the classical world, too. People are allowing themselves to show what they’re feeling more. That might be a more courteous explanation.

MP: There’s a lot going on in your life right now. Press, videos, concerts, albums. You’re being called the next big thing in jazz. What keeps you grounded?

ES: Rarely do I feel ungrounded. This is jazz we’re talking about here. Just jazz. Nobody knows who I am when I walk outside.

MP: But when you’re on stage, that’s often where the focus goes. People want to know what you have to say.

ES: Which is wonderful, and I’m happy to say it, but what I have to say isn’t any more valuable than what anybody else has to say. I just happen to be getting all the attention right now, and I’m so grateful for every little ounce. I have a lot of friends who are way hipper than I am musically and doing way more interesting stuff, and they struggle just to get people to come out to their gigs. I’m grateful to be supported in my work, but beyond that, it’s not about me. Who I am is my own business. I’m excited that there’s all this hype about my work.

MP: Things are moving pretty fast for you right now. Where would you like to be in five years?

ES:  In a broad sense, I would like to have a greater degree of mastery writing for strings and horns. I would love to become a better lyricist. And be more studious, and really enrich the music I’m playing, enrich the way I play, widen the palate of my voice, widen the palate of the bass. I would like to find a way to format improvised music, this music I love, keeping all this freedom and spontaneity, so anyone can appreciate it. I have a vision of a teenybopper being able to follow the poetry of improvised music and enjoy it. The skills of being able to listen and give people the freedom to be themselves within the context we’ve all agreed upon are ultimately important to making us human beings. I would like to find a way to incorporate them into a music that many, many people can enter.

MS: You’re playing an instrument hardly any women play, with big-name musicians who would be intimidating to a lot of people. You’re writing and arranging your own music, and singing. You seem fearless. Are you?

ES: Nobody’s fearless. I have all the same insecurities any artist has. I just don’t let them control what I do. I am who I am and I’m on my own little path, and I’m glad I sound how I sound and here I go. Maybe there’s a certain amount of bravery in that, but I have no other options. I would be very unhappy doing anything that wasn’t me.

***

Here’s a video of Spalding performing “Little Fly” from “Chamber Music Society.” And here’s a CD review I wrote with Fantastic Merlins bassist Brian Roessler.

Esperanza Spalding’s Chamber Music Society, 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday, Sept. 21-22, Dakota, 1010 Nicollet Mall ($45-$25) Tickets online or call 612-333-5299.

Pamela Espeland keeps a Twin Cities live jazz calendar, blogs about jazz at Bebopified and tweets about jazz on Twitter.

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Comments (1)

Great interview Pamela. I especially liked the "girl' question and part of the answer was a real honest insight..."whether I've shaved my legs or not." Gads...glad I'm a guy!