Esperanza Spalding: In Full Orbit


At 25 years old, bassist Esperanza Spalding wasn’t overly concerned with marketability.

(Photo: Sandrine Lee/Montuno Productions)

Esperanza Spalding buoys with moxie-plus, high-octane ebullience, spirited determination and respectful humility in the face of the jazz legacy.

For her new strings-laden album, Chamber Music Society (Heads Up), she insisted on opening with the moody yet playful vocalese tune “Knowledge Of Good And Evil.” But she met with resistance from her co-producer/co-arranger Gil Goldstein, her management and others who maintained that the leadoff track should be the lyrical beauty “Little Fly,” which showcases both her vocals and her bass playing on a William Blake poem she set to music. Even though she was out-voted, she wielded veto power, which she clung to.

“We were having this little argument, and I was saying, this album is an art piece, and I don’t want to get obsessed with marketability,” says the 25-year-old bassist/vocalist who has taken the jazz world by storm since her debut album, Junjo, released in 2006 on the distribution-challenged, Barcelona-based Ayva label, and her 2008 follow-up, Esperanza, on Heads Up. “Finally, Gil said, ‘Espe, is there anyone in the world whose opinion you would accept if we played them the album?’ I told him, ‘Yes, there’s one person, not that it matters, and that’s Wayne Shorter. If Wayne agrees with you, I wouldn’t argue.’”

Goldstein says that he was willing to concede to the artist’s demand for the first tune (as musician and co-producer, he says, she gets two votes), but nonetheless contacted Scott Southard, who works at International Music Network, the Boston-based booking agency that represents Spalding and Shorter. Goldstein told Southard that they were ready to go into the mastering stage and requested a quick turnaround. The next day Spalding received a text message from Southard. “Scott said that he sent Wayne the tapes overnight,” says Spalding with a laugh of amazement. “Wayne listened to it, and he agreed with Gil. So, we went with ‘Little Fly.’”

Why consult Shorter, whom Spalding didn’t know? “I figured it would be a moot point because there’s no way they could get in touch with Wayne Shorter that quickly to settle some stupid dispute,” says Spalding. “I figured that I would just win.”

But why Shorter and not some other upper-tier jazz master? “He’s the voice of music now that I most respect, flat out, in any genre,” she says. “It’s not only his music, but also his character, his spirit. He’s the artist I most admire. He’s valid. He’s the real thing. He’s solid.”

When Shorter voiced his opinion, he also requested that Spalding give him a call. It took her two days to muster up the courage to ring him. They ended up conversing for 45 minutes. “Wayne talked about music and his perspectives on many, many things,” says Spalding, who took notes that she’s attached to her refrigerator so she can reference his sage ruminations. “What he talked about was multilayered, multifaceted—everything from his humanistic and spiritual perspectives to his music and career. It was life- changing for me. He shared so openly and freely about everything.”

What Spalding also took away from the conversation was something that, given the unbridled eagerness inherent in her youth, taught her about her own future: “Wayne has so much bubbling enthusiasm to share. It’s something that can pull you forward. I thought, damn, I can do this for the rest of my days, till I’m old and crunchy and can’t move. That’s the ultimate for me.”

When we spoke four years ago, just as Spalding was launching her career a year after graduating from Berklee College of Music, she exuded such over-the-top excitement at the prospects of her present and future that I wondered if she would flame and crash, a victim of flying too close to the jazz sun. But her willingness to play the nonconformity card won her out. She reveled in that freedom. “I’ve always been that way,” the Portland, Oregon, native, then-Boston-based upstart said. “So many people are asleep, but I’m awake.”

Indeed, Spalding’s jazz ascent has been meteoric, based on the small but substantive body of work she’s developed so far and her buzz-worthy marquee performances—including a high-profile appearance at the 10th annual BET Music Awards show on June 27, when she gave it up for lifetime achievement honoree Prince by playing a solo vocal/bass rendering of his “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” Even so, she’s in no danger of becoming a meteorite. Instead, she’s in full orbit with her own solo endeavors, as well as playing co-starring roles in bands led by Joe Lovano (Us Five) and McCoy Tyner.

While in the studio she might be perceived as demanding, she is decidedly not a spoiled diva intent on steamrollering what lies ahead. In fact, Spalding is remarkably humble in front of the monumental jazz legacy that she’s tapping to inform her next steps.

Four years ago, everything was “fucking amazing.” She ranged high on the exuberance meter. Today, she continues to marvel, but in a much more mature manner, taking it all in stride. She’s still spunky, quick to joke and giggle, and utters little squeaks and oohs, whether it’s about the brunch that’s being served to her at Café Reggio in the West Village or the confirmation she receives by cell phone for getting tickets to the CareFusion New York Jazz Festival show celebrating Herbie Hancock’s 70th birthday at Carnegie Hall. Her trademark Afro is pulled back and tucked up in a bun, and she still exudes a hip, carefree attitude, selecting the neighborhood eating space not for the sake of upscale vibe but for its funkiness of piped-in opera and classical music, busts of famous musicians, and its claim to fame as brewing the finest cappuccinos in the Village.

During a conversation at the 2007 Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy, Spalding said she had a master plan: to play with her musical heroes. She drew up a list, two of whom she had just recently performed with: Richard Bona and Brian Blade. Then she suddenly remembered Stanley Clarke.

Regarding her tete-a-tete with Clarke, she burst out, “Oh, I flew to Los Angeles to work on his new album.” Without knowing how she could be of use, she blew in from the East Coast on a 5 a.m. flight and arrived on the West Coast at 10, assuming that she would be escorted to her hotel where she could rest up. “But the driver took me right to Stanley’s studio at his house,” she said. “We met and he gave me a piece of music he had written and asked me to write lyrics to it.” Clarke told Spalding that he’d return in a couple of hours. “Oh, my God, what was I going to do,” Spalding recounted, in a mock panic. “But I just wrote, and then sang the lyrics.” The song, “All Over Again,” showed up on Clarke’s The Toys Of Men.

After telling the story, she exclaimed, “This is way better than Superman and Spider-Man. I’m playing with musicians I admire, and that’s been amazing. Everything’s happening right now. It’s not been like a big super bang-up, but more what I see as a natural evolution of a musician working hard on her craft and going places as a result.”

The remaining three names on her list of six were Wayne Shorter (check), Stevie Wonder (check; he asked her to perform his song “I Know You Know” and accompanied her on her tune “Fall In” at a Los Angeles benefit he puts on annually) and Chick Corea. The last collaboration has yet to happen, but today that doesn’t matter as much as it did three years ago.

“I’ve modified my concept of the list,” she says. “Now, I realize that you can’t want to be with someone. It’s like wanting to marry someone you’ve never met. Music is so intimate, so fragile, so unpredictable. Today I feel like playing with someone because there’s something there to explore and the chemistry is there. I adore Chick Corea’s music, his writing. I’ve listened to his Inner Space record so many times that I could sing every part of it. But that doesn’t mean that if we worked together there would be the magic and meaning that would be important for our combined energies. So, now, I’m letting go of my lists.”

Spalding says she’s not interested in “getting a gig” anymore; she’s more concerned about what she can offer when opportunities arise. Case in point: her vocal collaboration with Milton Nascimento on the luscious tune “Apple Blossom,” from Chamber Music Society. Working with another one of her all-time heroes came by serendipity.

Last year, she and her trio were booked to play two dates in Brazil, at São Paulo and Rio, opening for George Benson. On a whim beforehand, she asked her management to send an e-mail to Nascimento to let him know how much she appreciated his music. A month later he responded and let her know he was paying attention to her, especially since she had recorded his tune “Ponta De Areia” on Esperanza. They continued a short correspondence of mutual admiration, and that was it—until Spalding arrived in Brazil.

“I didn’t know he was in the audience, but he saw us perform in São Paulo,” she says. “He came backstage and we met. And he invited us to a little party at his house when we got to Rio. We thought it was just a get-together, but he had actually thrown the party in our honor because we were visiting. All these musicians came and we all played, drank and hung together. Milton said to me, ‘Let’s make some music together sometime.’ That was super heavy. It was the ultimate to have that offer come from a hero of mine, not through some management plan.”

Fast-forward a couple of months, and Spalding was in a bind over how to sing one of her own compositions, “Apple Blossom,” which tells the story of an aging man who laments the death of his wife. “I wrote the song, but I had never experienced loss like that,” she says. “I needed someone else to sing it with me. That’s when I thought of Milton. I love the way he phrases English on his version of ‘Norwegian Wood.’ It’s so dark and melancholy. I thought he would be perfect for my song.”

Spalding e-mailed him, and he replied that he would be in the United States in November and agreed to come to the recording session in Los Angeles. She showed him the rough draft of the song, and the two nailed their gorgeous duet.

“It all happened so organically,” says Spalding. “You can feel the love between us when we sing. It had nothing to do with [the notion of] having to get this big name on the album.”

The same held true with Spalding’s connection to Tyner, who the night before our brunch at Café Reggio commanded SummerStage in Central Park as a part of the CareFusion New York fest. It was a free show on a double bill with Stanley Clarke, featuring Hiromi. Tyner’s band was an all-star quartet including Spalding, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and drummer Francisco Mela, an old friend of the bassist who appeared on Junjo. Smiling throughout, Spalding kept a close eye on Tyner, watching for the dynamics-prone pianist to wind down and rev up again. She played a deep groove, made sure to avoid Tyner’s powerful left hand and lulled with balladic lines when she was offered the space to stretch.

Again, Spalding did no lobbying to perform with Tyner. That took place last December when she joined his quartet for a week’s stay at Yoshi’s in Oakland. The all-star cast came together outside of Spalding’s sphere of influence. This New York appearance was the quartet’s first since early January. They jelled again. After the show backstage, Tyner praised the young bassist: “Esperanza is brilliant. She’s gifted. She’s solid and dependable. She listens to what’s going on and complements what I do. Plus, my first impression of her was that she’s a very nice person on top of it all.”

As for her onstage alertness, Tyner says, “You have to do that if you’re looking for inspiration and direction—not only the notes but how you move physically. You listen to the rhythms and watch the body move.”

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