Esperanza Spalding: Soul Mining
The bass phenomenon goes electric and eclectic to chase her muse through a childhood-inspired wonderland of music, poetry, dance, and theater.
Esperanza Spalding is a rare artist whose cosmic blend of intuitive creativity and hyper self-awareness has enabled her to make some audacious choices throughout her life. After 10 years of playing violin in her childhood, she got to high school and intuitively switched to upright bass. Once enrolled in college, she left the comforts of her hometown Portland State University in favor of the arguably more competitive Berklee College of Music. Upon graduating, she immediately put her education to work by becoming the youngest teacher at her alma mater.
With four albums under her belt since her 2006 debut, Junjo, Spalding has become known for singing elegant vocal melodies over often-unpredictable bass lines—and performing both with uncommon virtuosity. Her open-minded approach to selecting and arranging material has earned her accolades from jazz icons Wayne Shorter and Pat Metheny, among many others. Spalding’s sophomore release, Esperanza, came out in 2008 and quickly put the jazz world on notice. Since then, her career highlights include performing at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony with President Barack Obama in 2009, playing with Herbie Hancock at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2014, and winning four Grammys, including Best New Artist in 2011. She is the first jazz musician ever to win that category.
But now, rather than simply relying on the contemporary jazz template responsible for such milestones, the 31-year-old Spalding is making yet another bold choice. On her latest album, Emily’sD+Evolution (pronounced “D plus evolution”), Spalding shakes things up by mining her early childhood interests in theater, poetry, and movement and channeling them into a much broader concept of performance. It’s been four years since her last release, Radio Music Society, and the muse she’s cultivated, or shepherded, in that time is both aurally adventurous and aesthetically compelling. Check out her videos for “One” and “Good Lava” and you’ll get a clear sense of where her head is at these days.
“There’s this theme of inviting your brain out to play with your body and your heart,” Spalding explains. “It’s also a willingness to throw away, tear apart, strip down, and evolve all that you know, all that you’ve planned, all that you’ve progressed towards—a willingness to devolve so that you can evolve. It’s the willingness to break down all that you’ve built up for the sake of moving forward.”
Her persona transformation into the spirited, visually eccentric, electric-bass-wielding Emily is the kind of metamorphosis one might expect from a pop star like Prince, rather than jazz’s reigning low-end phenom, but, similarly, it’s a definitive statement from an artist/musician who refuses to be boxed in. And while she hasn’t completely eschewed her jazz heritage in favor of a multifarious vibe, it’s clear that her frame of reference is expanding. Elements of Joni Mitchell’s Jaco-era Hejira pervade songs like “Earth to Heaven” and “Noble Nobles,” while “Funk the Fear” invokes the politically charged mayhem of early ’70s Funkadelic.
The final track, a cover of “I Want It Now” from 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory soundtrack, perfectly epitomizes the youthful energy at play on Emily’sD+Evolution. It’s extremely evocative, with Emily at her most overt as catalyst and muse. The spoiled brat character Veruca Salt, who originally sang the song, may contradict Spalding’s openhearted personality, but the sentiment clearly illustrates there’s another force at work on this record. And though the entire album brings this new spirit to life, it’s Spalding’s seemingly innate ability to tune in and listen that allows her to chart a new course right before our very eyes and ears.
Premier Guitar spoke to Spalding during her tour stop in Portland, Oregon, and she provided the lowdown on Emily, her new album, and the trajectory that resulted in such a singular-sounding effort.
Listening to Emily’s D+Evolution for the first time, my immediate reaction was just, “Wow!” How did you learn to sing and play such complex lines simultaneously?
I guess the same way anybody does anything. You just work on it. I play and sing a lot, so by this point it’s not something I have to work out. Once I know the bass line and I know the kind of thing I want to sing, I can do it. And with this album, we played a lot of the material live first, so by the time we went into the studio, we just did the show—in front of people and in front of microphones.
Do you write on bass or on other instruments?
I write songs on the piano, but a couple of the songs on this record came from bass—at least from bass lines on the piano. I wrote “Rest in Pleasure” on bass. And “Judas” started as a bass line and the song grew around it.
I understand that childhood interests, like theater, poetry and dance, influenced this new record. How so?
I don’t know yet. I’m trying to figure that shit out. But I know it’s important. I actually didn’t remember that I was so interested in those things when I was a kid, until I started this project and started remembering how I used to present my ideas to family and friends. They were always staged and they were very physical. And I realized that, for whatever reason, I never pursued that mode of expression in my life, and yet, I think it’s important to me. Learning about it is important to me, so part of what Emily does is she opens the channel for that to happen in my life.
So, besides being your middle name, is Emily your alter ego?
I don’t see her as an alter ego. It’s my own archetype of something. She’s the archetype of an energy—a way of engaging with the world. So, at times, when I was gaining clarity about the direction I wanted the show to take, I’d ask her, “What do you want to do? Why did you come here? What do you need to say that I haven’t said—that I can’t say?” And one of the things she said was, “I’m here to move.” That was really clear when I was communing with the embodiment of energy she represents.
There’s definitely real vibrant imagery to the songs.
I understood that intuitively from when I first got the inspiration to do this project, because I was seeing the music happen in vignettes. They were almost like music videos, but it was performance. So I thought, “Okay, this is deeper than what I’ve done before, but I don’t know how to do this, so I guess it’s going to be a difficult project.” I’ve been reaching out in different directions to try to find the kind of collaborators and codirectors that can help get us there. But because I haven’t exactly seen it yet, I’m not sure where to point as an example of what I want this thing to do. So, we speak a lot in functional terms, which are not very specific in terms of aesthetic or actual movement or actual direction. It’s a slow, slogging process [laughs].
The physicality of the music is palpable. How did you capture that on the album?
I thought the best way to capture that would be if we actually performed it for the recording, so I invited a bunch of people—friends, coworkers, etc.—into the studio and we did the show for them. That’s the record. And I think you can hear that on those songs. It’s not like we were in this isolated space doing our best to get the song on tape. We’re performing the songs in this world we created for a live audience sitting in the control room. It’s Emily’s cerebral world, with her jungle. And I do think that energy comes through. It’s a different energy.
Is that “different energy” why there’s no acoustic bass on this record?
No. I just heard electric bass on it from the beginning. It wasn’t deep. And it’s not really me. I’m using my talent and my gift to give body and story and sound and presence to Emily’s energy. I still play acoustic all the time, so, in that regard, it didn’t feel like I was leaving something to go somewhere.
What gear did you use to craft your bass tone?
All of it is through an Ampeg SVT-4 PRO, which sounded awesome. The studio had lots of different stuff. I told them I wanted a “tacky” sound. I wanted it to be real buoyant and have a thickness, but I also wanted to have the clarity. I call that “tackiness,” like caramel stuck on your shoe or something. And so the engineer recommended the Ampeg. I heard it and I said, “Yep, that’s exactly what I need.”
What about Simon Propert’s South Paw bass? Did he make that for you?
He didn’t make it for me, but he let me take it once he made it. He’s one of the luthiers at David Gage in NYC, which is where I’ve taken my upright bass a few times to get it worked on. He started making his own instruments and he was like, “If you ever want to try it out, let me know.” And I was like, “Yeah, I want to try it out.” So, he let me take it to try and I really liked it. He said I didn’t have to give it back. I just had to pay for the Bartolini electronics, which I did, and we’ve been happy ever since.
Do you have a preference between the 4- and 5-string?
No, I just wasn’t comfortable enough with the 5-string to play it full time, but now I am, so on this tour I’m playing the 5-string.
After winning an impressive five Grammys, Spalding has opted for the unusual career move of an artistic and personal makeover. Photo by Holly Andres
What did famed David Bowie producer Tony Visconti bring to the project? He came in after the material was recorded, correct?
He’s a sound-craft master. He mixed and did stuff to the songs that I can’t even explain to you. I didn’t understand what he was doing, but he brought the sound to where it was always supposed to be.
Did you give him any direction or did you simply hand it off to him?
I told him I wanted it to feel intimate, but be in-your-face. I wanted people to really be able to hear what we were playing—to hear the interplay between us, because so much of what makes the music special is the interplay between the drummer, the guitar player, and me. I felt he highlighted that interplay and made it feel like a whole. And he believed in it. At that point I needed a champion. I needed somebody to believe in this project with me and he did.
Did you have the musicians in mind when you started this project?
I reached out to specific people who I thought would be right for it, and that was Karriem [Riggins, on drums] and Matt [Stevens, on guitar]. They were into it. I thought that was all we needed. I thought that would give it the sound I was looking for.
Did you know when you were first writing these songs that a three-piece was the right configuration?
At the beginning of a project, you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing—at least in my case [laughs]. I don’t think you can plan ahead too much. You have to trust your instincts and then you can plan your brains out. But in the mode of initial inspiration I tend to operate out of an intuitive sense with regard to people and things. I get in touch with what I want to do with the project first, then think about who could partner in that. And both guys immediately came to mind because of experiences I’ve had playing with them. I knew about the breadth of their musicianship.
I often feel that at some point in the creative process the music takes on a life of its own and it becomes an artist’s job to be a good steward, rather than imposing his or her will on it. Is that true for you?
Another way of saying that is you have to be honest about what’s working. Often I find that’s the impetus for change. I’ll be like, “God, this isn’t working. Why?” Then you try something different and you stumble upon something that works or, inversely, you might be in the early development stage and you stumble upon a piece that you hadn’t expected to be a part of it and you realize, “Oh man, that’s really working and it’s supporting this whole project as it grows in a way that will make it more compelling, inviting, stronger, or unified.” There’s no absolute. I think we all get a sense of what’s working and what’s not. I feel like it’s really important to be unattached to everything as you’re going along because the project is teaching you. Be in touch with what’s working and what’s not and let that be the guide. It can help you ask better questions.
You started out on violin and you also play piano. Does knowing other instruments give you an edge as a bassist?
If you really learn any instrument thoroughly, you’re going to gain access to an understanding of music. Particularly if you’re beyond the student level and you’re out playing with other people professionally. You get drawn in a million different directions on your instrument, and it’s wonderful—whatever instrument it is. If you have the time or the talent to cultivate a second instrument, that’s great, but I don’t think it’s necessary. The fact that I started on violin just happened to be my direction. That was the first way I got involved in learning about and playing music. I played for 10 years and then I switched to the bass, but it could’ve been anything, really.
Playing the violin for so long must’ve helped you transition to bass though, no?
When I picked up the bass I could figure out how to get to the notes I wanted to hear because I was familiar with a non-fretted, stringed instrument. I understood the spatial things, depressing the strings and creating the tone. But I was also immediately introduced to the idea of improv. I was able to engage in improvising right away, at that shitty little, very beginner, level, but it allowed me to get a taste for it. And once I had a taste for improvising, that drew me out into the rest of my life. Improvised music was the key for me.
What about the piano?
Having access to the piano is important, because of how you can see harmony on it. It’s such a wonderful tool. But then again, you’ll think about harmony differently if you don’t play piano. It’s important to take the time to really wrap your brain and body and instrument around harmonic concepts. Every way is valid.
You started college at Portland State, then transferred to Berklee. Why?
I was very happy at Portland, but I got a full scholarship to go to this music school in Boston I’d heard so much about. I was excited about getting out of Portland and trying something new. It wasn’t that I was dissatisfied with Portland State. It was amazing. I had an incredible time there. I just didn’t have a full scholarship and I did at Berklee.
Were you a good student?
I wasn’t a good student my whole life. I’m not proud of that fact, but it’s the reality of how my brain was operating and where my priorities were. I loved reading and learning about things and doing homework, but I’d always get shitty grades. It was so disheartening, because the affirmation I was getting from my school environment didn’t reflect how I felt about learning. It was hard. I think I carried some of that when I moved on to college.
You ended up teaching at Berklee. What did you teach? And were you better at teaching than being a student?
I taught a couple of ensembles. I had a lot of private bass students. I really love teaching. I got to teach at the Banff Centre a couple years ago and I loved every second of it. I think I’m good at it. I decided to quit because I was starting to tour as a bandleader and I couldn’t give Berklee or the students the focus that they deserved.
Who were some of your early influences?
All my bass teachers from Portland: Dave Captein, [the late] Ken Baldwin, Andre St. James, and Dan Schulte. One of them turned me on to Leroy Vinnegar, who was a Portland resident for a while. I checked him out a lot. Obviously Paul Chambers, because [Miles Davis’ 1959 classic] Kind of Blue was the first record I really got into once I was invited into the world of improv. And then I got into Slam Stewart, because it was the first time I heard that kind of linear, melodic playing on the bass. Not that Paul Chambers didn’t do that, but with the arco sound and Stewart’s voice, I was really hearing the singing quality of the lines and it became a goal of mine to play a melody like that. [Editor’s note: Stewart’s trademark was his ability to bow the bass and simultaneously hum or sing an octave higher.]
You won a Grammy for Best New Artist in 2011. Did you experience any pressure from that afterwards?
No. It has a limited effect. It helped bring in a more diverse crowd to the venues we were playing. I got more promo out of it. I get that caption now, in association with my name. I didn’t feel any pressure. I thought it was weird. I quickly realized that just because it happened doesn’t mean my craft is received in the commercial playing field. It hasn’t been so far, and the Grammy didn’t change that.
I do, however, recognize what it represents in terms of how many people chose to tick my name off on a ballot. And that was intentional, on all of those people’s parts, and I really appreciate that. It was a big affirmation for me to keep going.
What have you learned from playing with guys like Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock?
I admire them so deeply. Their music is so profound, magical, brilliant, intelligent, and soulful. And that’s how they are as people. So maybe the takeaway is that you have to act like and be like you want your music to be. Being a little satellite in their orbit was a great lesson in how to live one’s life. It’s one of the greatest blessings in my life.
The official video for “Good Lava,” the first single from Esperanza Spalding’s new album, Emily’s D+Evolution, is a psychedelic summation of its uninhibited strengths. Musically intense, poetic, packed with movement, and visually explosive, it’s also a showcase for her new 5-string South Paw bass.
Photo by Meg Stacker
Matthew Stevens on Defying Guitar Dogma: How an NYC jazzer’s free-thinking background prepared him for performing with Esperanza Spalding.
New York City-based jazz guitarist Matthew Stevens has carved out quite a solid career for himself over the past decade, working with artists like New Orleans trumpeter Christian Scott and drummers Terri Lyne Carrington and Harvey Mason, Sr. In 2015, Stevens released Woodwork, his debut recording as a bandleader.
Not surprising, given his unique approach, the guitarists who’ve influenced Stevens the most over the years are musicians he says are often difficult to categorize. “Jimi Hendrix, John Scofield, and Pat Metheny are examples of players who aren’t self-consciously or heavy-handedly combining genres,” he explains. “They just don’t adhere to that dogma to begin with. They do what they want in the moment.” Stevens grew up in Toronto, so he also drew from Canadian guitarists Ed Bickert and Lorne Lofsky—guys who come from the equally free-ranging Lenny Breau jazz tradition.
“Follow your guiding principles as a musician, listen to the music, and collaborate with what it’s asking for,” Stevens offers as his approach, echoing a sentiment Esperanza Spalding applied to her latest album. Stevens’ playing on Emily’s D+Evolution defies categorization, but he says one of his—and the band’s—guiding principles for the sessions was to channel a bit of rock ’n’ roll bombast. “We wanted to make the stuff in-your-face and really punchy and aggressive, like some of the power trios we’d all been inspired by at different points,” he says, naming Band of Gypsys and Cream as two prime examples.
“It was really interesting to jump into Esperanza’s demos,” he continues, “which were basically just piano and voice, while we’re a guitar, bass, and drums trio. We worked from really stark demos that were awesome, but just guides. It was more about capturing the spirit of something.” He says Spalding invited him to interpret the songs in his own way right from the get-go. “Since there’s no piano in the band, some of the stuff needed to be represented harmonically on guitar,” he relates. “She’s a really open-minded musician, obviously, and a really inclusive leader and collaborator, so it wasn’t scripted. It didn’t have to be a certain way.”
As for tracking guitars on Emily’s D+Evolution, Stevens says he tapped into an unorthodox approach for the first time. “I don’t usually go true stereo, but I did on this record,” he explains. “We were messing around with it on the first session, we liked how it sounded, and, because we were a trio, there was the sonic room for it. I hadn’t ever done that for an entire record.” Among the go-to effects in play was an old piece of studio gear he thinks was the Cooper Time Cube—an obscure delay that actually uses a section of garden hose in its works and is highly regarding for its doubling effect.
His goal was to simply be true to himself and the music. “When it’s not your own music, it’s rare to feel so connected to it,” he says. “It does happen under great leadership and with great material. I was like, ‘I can genuinely connect to this music, even though I didn’t write it. It speaks to me, and the person who wrote it is inviting me in—not just as a guitar player, but as an artist.’ And that’s the best—when you have an opportunity like that. I think the songs are so strong and she’s an amazing lyricist. The whole spirit of the music and the project was just leaping into the unknown together.”