You’ve played with some legendary musicians,
including Stevie Wonder, Prince,
and Herbie Hancock. But for jazz nuts, a
couple of them—[legendary jazz drummers]
Billy Hart and Jack DeJohnette—
are just … “Holy crap!”
That’s how I feel—woo! I mean, they’re
my friends, and I love and admire them,
so if I feel I have something to offer them
by being on the project, why not invite
them to play on my album? I asked Billy
to play on my album after a gig at the
Village Vanguard, and he said, “Sure kid,
but you’re never going to call me.” But of
course, I did, and he just came in and laid
down that crazy, beautiful groove on “Hold
on Me.” I got to know Jack from doing a
few gigs with Herbie Hancock. We hit it
off—just had a really beautiful rapport as
human beings, talking about music and
life. It was like, “Let’s do this—I’ll play
on your record [DeJohnette’s new Sound
Travels], and you’ll play on mine.”
Jack is such a musical drummer—it’s as if
he’s playing a little orchestra.
That’s something I really like about Terri
Lyne Carrington, too. It’s not like, “I
worked out a bunch of shit on the drums,
and I’m going to play it.” It’s more like she’s
orchestrating around the kit, so it sounds
like multiple percussion instruments being
played at once. And yeah, Jack is the same
way. He’s not locked into patterns. He
comes up with the right combination of
notes and rhythms for the context of every
moment, and that’s really rare.
You take on some pretty potent topics,
and you also do something very few
young songwriters do—you write about
stuff other than yourself.
I talk about myself an awful lot, doing
so many interviews, and I’m just not that
interesting to myself! I find a lot of inspiration
in the people I know and the world
around me, and if I’m going to spend all
this time that it takes to put together a
song that I’m happy with, it’s got to keep
me interested. The songs that capture my
attention—the ones that really feel done in
the end—are the ones where I have to really
dig to find out what it’s talking about.
“Cinnamon Tree” was a real challenge. Sure,
the metaphor was there first, this little nickname,
but how to unpack that, turn that
little phrase into a song and a story about
You’ve been quoted as saying you write
songs and albums in fragments, yet your
albums hang together very nicely—
despite being stylistically diverse. How do
you pull that off?
Well, I make a record because the music
seems like it’s got something to tell.
Through the process of unpacking the
songs, step by step, you’re just trying to
do service to the music. So if it seems like
some dissonance is in order, then that’s
what you do. If it’s a good place for a
simple IV-I cadence, I’ll do that. There’s not
a guiding principle that comes from outside
the music. The guiding principle comes
from within each song and from within
So you take it one song at a time, without
any sort of overarching theme?
Yeah—whether it’s Esperanza Spalding,
Chamber Music Society, or Radio Music
Society, it’s been a song-by-song process,
and then when I look at the final list of
songs, I figure the ensemble will give it
the color that will connect the whole
album. The same is true for bass lines and
I’ve talked about this in terms of playing
with [veteran jazz saxophonist] Joe Lovano,
regarding playing between the two drummers.
With that group, there’s no single
approach that works. There’s no specific
way of playing that you can count on.
I’m just listening. In fact, I try to almost
pretend that I’m not playing at all—just to
listen, from the outside, to the full sound
coming off the stage. Then, as an arranger/
composer, I want to place the bass part so
that it will do the most good for the music
happening at that moment. And it’s different
every night—even the same song can be
really different, night to night.
There’s a great line [Thelonious] Monk
wrote about how he’d heard a lot of universities
had a class called “Communications.”
And he said, “I don’t know what that class
is for, but I hope they teach deep listening
and loving speech!” Communication
is ultimately what everybody has signed
up for when they get on the bandstand.
They are there to communicate honestly
and truthfully and even compassionately.
You are trying to contribute to a flowing
conversation in time, so you listen in order
to be better able to speak, and to ask questions,
and to make sense.
Spalding’s approach to
playing with jazz’s elite is to
listen to the other players
and forget that she’s playing
at all. By Carlos Pericas,
Courtesy of Montuno
What sorts of questions?
You can offer opinions. You can ask,
“Could you describe that further?” Or,
“Have you ever looked at it from this
perspective?” Or you can say, “No, no,
no—I’ve heard that shit before and I don’t
agree!” It’s like there’s a flowing, morphing
conversation, so of course you have
to listen—just like you would if you were
talking to someone you really cared about
and you wanted to know more about what
they were saying. And it’s not just jazz.
Great pop bands are made up of musicians
who exercise all those same skills. That’s the
foundation of music.