A rising jazz star talks pop, popularity and the lure of the radio
The internet was abuzz when the name of last year’s Best New Artist winner was announced at the Grammys: Oregon-born jazz singer and bass player Esperanza Spalding. She triumphed over better-known names like teen idol Justin Bieber, whose fans’ over-the-top outrage extended to online death threats. “I don’t take it personally,” says Spalding, 27. “They don’t know me, so it’s not personal. I remember being a preteen and teenager. I was so hormonal and emotional, and I overreacted about everything.”
Mind you, Spalding’s teen years were devoted to matters very different from following the latest pop sensation. A prodigious talent on violin before switching to bass, by 20 she was one of the youngest professors in the history of Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music. At 21 she released her debut solo album, Junjo, but it was 2010’s Chamber Music Society that caught the mainstream’s attention. During her budding career she has already collaborated with artists like Terri Lyne Carrington, Patti Austin and mentor Joe Lovano, and performed several times before President Obama, including at a White House function honoring Stevie Wonder.
Now she’s released Radio Music Society, a diverse collection of more mainstream-minded material that she describes as “a companion piece” to its predecessor. “The connection is me—my playing and my writing and singing,” she says. “Chamber Music Society is very intimate and asks the listeners to lean into our space and give us a platform where we can communicate. Radio Music Society is trying to find a way to project this out.”
Does Radio Music Society have a conceptual theme in the music?
The theme is the radio and all that that implies. It’s a medium through which a lot of people receive free music. That’s meant different things to different people in different phases of their lives. To me the radio means that no matter where you are or what you’re doing, you can turn this thing on and find something you want to listen to, something that speaks to you at that moment.
Did you intend to make a more pop-oriented record this time around?
No. “Pop-oriented” is such a weird phrase—“pop” is just an abbreviation of “popular music.” But there are certain tools in arranging and in performance that many bandleaders use with the idea of bringing the audience into what you want to convey from a particular composition, solo section or arrangement. We are all exploring, trying to create impact with the music we’re making. These songs didn’t start out as jazz songs per se, but I knew who I wanted to play on them.
Usually just by going, “Oh, I wish she or he would be on it.” There are so many friends and musicians in the community. You listen to how the song wants to sound, and try to do justice to it with the personnel you choose. Once I definitely know who is going to be on a song, I frame the arrangement around those individuals.
Do you write songs with your live performance in mind?
The challenge is different. When I’m making a record, I’m thinking of traveling with the music for a couple of years. With my band, it’s a way to format these elements of jazz so that when we play live it’s creating an exciting show. Inside of that, all these phenomenal musicians who’ll be touring with us can have a platform to really play and share their musicianship with audiences who might not go to jazz concerts. That’s the simplest way to describe it.
Do you prefer playing in a group or being the bandleader?
I’ve done a lot more playing in a band than leading. I feel most comfortable as a bass player. It’s what I identify with in terms of my place in music. It’s what I understand best, and when I do that there are fewer things to worry about. When it’s my composition, I have a clear objective of what I want to transmit throughout the interpretation of a particular song. Of course we’re free within that, but I’m much more conscious of directing it within that objective as a bandleader. When I’m playing bass, particularly an ensemble like Joe’s Us Five [with Lovano] or in a trio with Terri and [pianist] Geri Allen, everyone in the band is creating equally.
Have you felt judged as a woman?
I think there are stereotypes that we all live by. We’re all human. We’re striving to be these incredibly ethical, liberated creatures but we stereotype. If you see a 17-year-old girl walking into a club with an instrument, we have stereotypes about that. I never felt people were prejudiced against me but I certainly could sense people reacting to me according to their stereotypes. But that happens every day, and what are you going to do? I’m not going to try to reform them, because at the end of the day the work speaks for itself. I’m not here to change people’s perceptions about women in music. Only a century ago, symphonies considered women incapable of playing music. In the grander scheme of things it’s natural that as more women push to develop themselves, things will progress.
What drew you to the bass?
I had access to the instrument through my high school, and I just went in to play it one day and I loved it. It gave back in a way that I’d never experienced before with an instrument. It felt good.
Did you always sing?
No, I just started singing to memorize songs. Coming from a classical understanding of theory, I didn’t know what chord symbols meant. I was trying to figure out what tunes people were playing and then I would go learn them. Someone said, “Wow, you have a nice voice,” so I started doing that. Then this rock band was looking for a bass player, so I auditioned and told them I could also do background vocals. Then they asked me to do some lead vocals. I started writing, and I wrote myself into the lead vocal part. So that’s how I started singing and playing in the front.
How was playing for Obama?
Paul Simon and Herbie Hancock were in the front row, and I was more aware of their presence—though I was excited about the prospect of playing for a president who was that interested in music and poetry. To me that was meaningful. He understands the significance of the arts to the people of a democracy. The feeling on my part was, “Kudos, right on and thank you for doing this,” and, “Please let me not sound like crap in front of Herbie and Paul.”