The Can’t-Fail Energy of Esperanza Spalding

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Esperanza Spalding’s new album is titled Exposure.

(Photo: Jimmy and Dena Katz)

Witnessing Esperanza Spalding in concert in September 2006, when she opened for the McCoy Tyner Sextet at Berklee’s Beantown Jazz Festival in Boston, it was clear that she was exceptional.Her debut album Junjo, with pianist Aruan Ortiz and drummer Francisco Mela, had just come out on the Barcelona-based Ayva Music label, showcasing her obvious talents, though it included only two originals alongside interpretations of Chick Corea’s “Humpty Dumpty,” Jimmy Rowles’ “Thee Peacocks” and Egbert Gismonti’s “Loro.” With her self-titled major label debut in 2008 on the Heads Up label, Esperanza exploded onto the scene with a kind of confidence and verve that is rare for any 23-year-old artist. And by the time she won the Best New Artist Grammy Award in 2011 on the strength of 2010’s Chamber Music Society, she was a full-fledged star ready to follow her instincts and tackle concept projects with a capital “C.”

Chamber Music Society was followed by the crossover album Radio Music Society in 2012. Spalding’s 2016 kaleidoscopic concept album Emily’s D+ Revolution found her adopting an alter ego/spirit muse to allow her the creative freedom to pursue a new musical direction without the pressure of expectations.

After performing inspired sets this past summer with the ACS Trio at the Newport Jazz Festival and a week at the Village Vanguard, Spalding pulled off the most audacious move yet in her daredevil career by live-streaming the birth of an album from conception to completion in 77 hours before an estimated audience of 1.4 million Facebook viewers.

“Knowing someone is watching and listening to what you’re making seems to conjure up a sort of ‘can’t fail’ energy,” reads Spalding’s mission statement on her website. “The necessity to keep going because it’s live draws up another depth of creative facility that can’t be reached when you know you can try again tomorrow.” For the subsequent album, the aptly named Exposure, she pressed up only 7,777 copies—another cryptic move by the ever-evolving artist who continues to think outside the box.

Guitarist Matthew Stevens, keyboardists Robert Glasper and Ray Angry, violinist Andrew Bird, vocalist Lalah Hathaway and drummer Justin Tyson participated in the recording sessions. Stevens described the process as unlike anything he had ever done. “I think Esperanza is interested in excavating the deep, dark corners of her artistic self by whatever means necessary, which includes a willingness to fail,” he said. “She committed herself to this project 100 percent and wrote those songs from nothing in front of all those people.”

The afternoon before premiering new tunes from Exposure at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, we met at the restaurant Alta Calidad in Prospect Heights. The conversation was free-flowing, funny and full of intrigue.The following evening, at Pioneer Works, a line wrapped around two blocks to enter the facility.

A sleight gure alone onstage, seated on a stool, she opened with a solo rendition of “Contora De Yala,” playing upright bass and singing in Spanish before delivering an intimate rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed.”

Her between-songs banter with the audience was open and honest, alternately earthy and mystical, tender and metaphysical. Her current group Royal Tease (Angry, saxophonist Myron Walden, drummer Josh Dion and backup singers Starr Busby and Catherine Brookman) then joined her on stage to perform new, previously unheard material from Exposure. At one point during the show, Spalding told the audience, “Don’t let the internet fool you, the answers are here,” pointing to her heart.

Below are excerpts from our conversation.

DownBeat: Where did this idea of doing a marathon live-streaming session on Facebook come from, and how did you actually bring it to fruition?

Esperanza Spalding: Originally the idea came when I was sitting at James, this restaurant about three blocks from here. I had been thinking for months about doing a performance-based live event that would happen in real time, and I wanted somehow to invite non-musicians into the creative process.

There were a lot of things going into my brain, all based on how to create something based on a concept. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks—“No, fuck that! Enough with the conceptualizing. What would happen if you just went in with nothing planned, where the creation, the exhibit, the performance was just being yourself and making whatever you had to release at that moment?”

I loved that idea because ... you could only respond to whatever was actually happening in the actual moment—versus responding to a concept that had been pre-determined ahead of time. It’s like the difference between improvising and film scoring. When you’re creating in accordance to a concept, the concept itself [can] be limiting on the creative content.

It’s already providing a frame.

Exactly. So I just thought, “What could I do that would remove everything but spontaneous creation?” which to me means you’re responding to what’s actually happening in the moment versus like a chord structure or a theme or whatever. It was in response to sort of an exhaustion of putting ideas together and then responding to the concept. And it was in the moment of feeling like, “Fuck it! I don’t have the energy to create an ambiance around an idea.” I felt kind of burned out on that method.

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