The Interview: Esperanza Spalding

Portland-bred jazz bassist, composer, and vocalist Esperanza Spalding already holds many achievements under her belt. At 20, she became the youngest faculty member ever in her alma mater’s history, the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. She has worked with numerous jazz legends including Herbie Hancock, Joe Lovano, and Patti Austin. Now at 23, Spalding is promoting her sophomore effort Esperanza (Heads Up, 2008) and touring all over the globe. I had a moment to chat with Esperanza Spalding about her musical influences, what she’s listening to right now, and her role in today’s jazz scene.

Are you still teaching at Berklee College of Music? Will you continue to teach and perform?

I haven’t been able to teach regularly for about a year. Right now, I am speaking with the school, trying to figure out a way to stay involved with them and my students, but manage my touring schedule as well. Teaching is very important to me, so I will do everything I can to continue it along with my performance career.

I caught your recent performance on The Late Show with David Letterman. I missed you on Jimmy Kimmel Live! during that same week. And now you’re on the cover of JazzTimes, which has you featured as one of the “new visionaries” of jazz. How are you handling all of your success and exposure? Who or what keeps you grounded?

Well, I never feel like I need anything to keep me grounded per se. I try not to pay too much attention to press because it is sort of a separate entity from the music. Also, almost every time I turn around I hear someone who deserves all of this hype much more than me! My main objective in the face of all this attention and expectation is to make sure I am upholding my end of the deal, i.e., delivering strong, exciting, and well-crafted music.

Why did you decide to sing as well as play the bass?

It developed kind of in its own way I guess. At a certain point in the beginning of my life as a bassist, I auditioned for a pop band to play bass. They asked me if I could sing background [vocals], and by the end of my stint with that band, I was singing lead. And from there, I realized that I could use it as a texture in the music, and as a way to connect with audiences.

What was the music scene like growing up in Portland, Oregon? How did you get inspired there?

Portland is an incredibly diverse place musically. So from a young age I was exposed to many different sources of music and art. As a young child I was involved in different music programs, primarily on violin but also for a little while on clarinet and oboe, and the older students and teachers were a constant source of inspiration. Once I started playing bass, it opened up a whole new world of local jam sessions, listening parties, concerts, and playing opportunities that kept me inspired.

I read that you weren’t happy in high school until you picked up the double bass and started to improvise. What made you fall in love with the bass?

I wasn’t happy with high school in general! And, actually, I discovered the bass there right before I left. School never particularly resonated well with me; I think the best thing I got from it by far was discovering the bass. In the beginning, the first few moments touching the instrument, it was purely the sound that caught my ear and attention. From then [on], I really grew to love the instrument conceptually, and my career as a bassist continued growing from those first few weeks jamming with teachers and friends.

Most women in jazz are either legendary pianists (Mary Lou Williams, Alice Coltrane) or great vocalists (Billie, Ella, Sarah). With giants like Ron Carter and Charles Mingus, jazz bassists have primarily been an “all-boys club.” How does it feel to change that?

Ha! True. Most women in this music have been singers and pianists—let’s not forget drummers too! And I don’t want to celebrate too soon!! I still have a long ways to go until I am in the club of cats like Ron Carter and Charles Mingus. But, you know Mary Lou Williams was quoted as saying something really intelligent: “The more you immerse yourself in your work, the more you forget if you are a man or a woman.” And, it’s really true. It’s seldom that I really think about the fact I am a woman doing this. Usually, I just feel like me and let other people fuss about my gender.

What jazz greats (or non-jazz greats) have inspired you to play? Are you a hip-hop head?

I often look to hip-hop for inspiration on how to make acoustic instruments sound, in effect an acoustic or “jazz” band, have the same energy and magnetism of a produced track. And, honestly I draw inspiration from SO many places. But a few of my favorites are Wayne Shorter, Milton Nascimento, Earth, Wind & Fire, Black Star, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Andre 3000, Betty Carter, Joe Lovano, Gnarls Barkley, The Roots…I feel lame only mentioning these few, because there are quite a lot more!!

Assuming you own an iPod (or any MP3 player), what artists would I find on there right now? Do you collect jazz on vinyl? What would be the one album you would never sell and why?

Most of the time, I order discs online from Amazon, so my house is a mess, full of CDs. There are literally overflowing piles of CDs all over my house. I can’t help it. I love having something in my hand I can read and look at while I listen. I still have my Discman and I carry around a few CDs on tour. Right now I am carrying Minnie Riperton, A Tribe Called Quest, The John Coltrane Quartet – Live at the Showboat Philadelphia (RLR Recordings, 1963), and a few more I have received from people on tour. I would never sell any of my stuff…I always give ’em away! I do have one vinyl copy of Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook (Verve Records, 1957) that I will never sell. I had a copy of it when I was younger, and it’s very dear to me.

A few nights ago, I was listening to NPR’s Jazzset and I caught your band performing at Sculler’s Jazz Club in Boston back in fall 2006. What I noticed almost immediately was the strong Brazilian influence in your vocals and the band’s overall sound. Where did this influence come from?

From the beginning of my studying jazz, Brazilian music was there. I used to listen to many old Brazilian records from João Donato, Quarteto Novo, João Gilberto and especially Hermeto Pascoal. I think the rhythms and melodies infected my musical approach to directing my own music from the beginning. I also spent a little bit of time in Brazil and dated a Brazilian guy who had an amazing collection of records. He turned me on to a lot of incredible music, and I “borrowed” (really took 🙂 many of his records.

I often have long discussions with my friends about the state of black music—whether there will ever be another Marvin Gaye or John Coltrane. And in this sea of reality shows and bling, black music’s future looks very dim. How do you stay motivated to perform in this new era of black music?

Black music will be fine, because it exists outside of all of the media hype and garbage, which it sounds like you are alluding to when you mention bling, reality shows, etc. There may even be the Marvin Gaye’s and Coltrane’s now, but the major media outlet may not embrace them the way that Marvin and Trane were embraced in their era. True lovers of the MUSIC will always be able to discern who is doing something worthwhile, and who is simply a passing fad created by the media. When I go to a live show and see every kind of face, age, and race there to support great black artists, my hope is continually recharged.

Shannon J. Effinger

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