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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 friendship?
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 each ensemble.
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 bass playing.
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.