|Esperanza Spalding. Photo credit: Roger Thomas|
She’s sitting in a smart hotel room: young, gifted and black, her rebellious Afro, which usually brings to mind Angela Davis and the days of civil-rights protest, is meticulously tamed. She’s talking about Radio Music Society, her new album, a collection of songs that are extrovert, accessible and a little bombastic, and which was conceived as a device that aligns her music to the realities of formatted mainstream radio.
For Esperanza Spalding, 27 year-old jazz bassist and singer, this is no more than a minor balancing act. Commercialisation? So what? She knows she loses control of how her music is received as soon as it is published, and cites the Scottish writer George Macdonald: “What he liked about fairy tales is that people find their own metaphors and allegories way beyond what he originally intended. He might have just conceived of a story with no deeper connotation and people found more profound things in it than he could have intentionally written. I relate to that sentiment.”
Spalding loves to spice what she says with adventurous leaps — from Macdonald, claimed to be an inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien, to Joe Lovano and Wayne Shorter, two of her mentors, and further on to the Serenity Prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous. She ranges from her own song writing to the unexplored music of the black churches and the significance of dance for the descendants of African slaves as a memory medium for the ancient rhythms which in the course of jazz history were translated back into sound by drummers such as Papa Jo Jones.
In jazz, Esperanza Spalding is herself something of a present-day fairy tale. She has played for Barack Obama at the White House and at the celebration of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, and with Chamber Music Society, her last album, an introverted twin to the new release which was much closer to the sound of classical chamber music, she bridged the gap to the mainstream audience. No jazz album sold better, Billboard declared her Jazz Artist of the Year and she stirred up a good deal of fuss by winning the 2011 Grammy as Best New Artist, leaving behind competitors such as Justin Bieber.
Born one of two children to a single mother in Portland, Oregon, Spalding took up violin when she was four. “I was definitely one of those kids that have this natural inclination to make things up,” she says of her approach to playing back then. “Sometimes in the process you hear a sound and you just make it up.” At five she joins the Chamber Music Society of Oregon, an ambitious community orchestra that provides her initial musical training: quartets, duets, solo and orchestral pieces – everything that’s in the classical violin repertoire. After 10 years she’s advanced to the position of a bandmaster but is already searching for new frontiers. “My relationship to classical music,” she says, “was always in the context of education.”
She discovered the double bass when she was 15 and was hooked immediately. “In the first lesson my teacher at High School briefly explained how a bass line is created for a blues: here are the chords, this is how many bars it is, and this the kind of scale you use. The only thing you have to do is to make different permutations of those scales, keep good time and make sure that you’re leading to the next sound,” she recalls. “The first time I heard that I made, ‘huh?’, but as soon as I realised how to do it, it was satisfying to combine the two things that have always seemed the most comfortable and inviting to me — playing by ear and making things up. That was freedom. It was so exciting and so fun.”
She had found a way to discover all the other territories of the music she had grown up with: R&B, blues, jazz and all the different layers of black music. The young violinist turned bass player practised, studied and dived into the music communities of her native Portland. “From that moment on that was all I wanted to do: play that music, play that instrument.” When she was 20 she had left her formal education so far behind that she was assigned as a teacher at Berklee, the most prestigious of jazz schools.
With her rocket-like ascent into the Champions’ League of jazz, Esperanza Spalding has the musical leeway to give her total serenity. Against all the rules of marketing she can turn an album that is as encrypted as chamber music into a huge success, before turning around and playing some hard-swinging mainstream jazz like in the old days. And when she announces another album designed to end up on commercial radio, it might turn out that the music still has teeth in ways that would never normally fit into the mainstream. She chuckles: “Yeah, I know. Sometimes mid-thesis you realise that the research has shown you something different than you originally intended to find.”
That’s the value of her artistic independence — she doesn’t need to temper her judgment with selling considerations and is free to let things happen which are beyond the reach of rational consideration: “In my writing I’m sort of a puppet of something that comes through me and then I get to move around with an arsenal of the material I’ve studied and try to piece together what I’m really guided to do, and I want to respect that even within this premise of the concept. Some decisions I made in the process were between ‘I know, if I leave it in here it will never end up on the radio’, but it needs to be there, because that’s what the song means, how it sounds and if I cut that out, it’s not the song anymore. When that was the decision I always went with respect for the music.”
The same is true for the lyrics of the songs, which she just lets happen instead of writing them with a purpose in mind. “I’m not that deep,” she says. “I just like to sing. I like the feeling of singing. I guess I should probably think about it, but I don’t. If it seems too significant I freeze up.” With the song cycle on Radio Music Society, however, she takes a stand and sums up political topics that the current wunderkind of jazz has every reason to be concerned about: deliberate injustice within the legal system, Afro-American self-esteem and the care of the cultural legacy, the arbitrary violence of war that destroys even the survivors, the conservation of biodiversity.
It turns out that, however involuntarily and unexpectedly, Esperanza has become a topical singer, with a realistic agenda: “I don’t know if music can or cannot change something and I’m not trying to tell you anything, but if nothing else, when you listen to the record there’s about 11 minutes where you just think about those things.”
It sounds like the start of something important, and Spalding wants to part of it: “Awareness, it’s already a step on the way.”
(*) A version of Stefan Hentz’s profile of Esperanza Spalding appeared in German in DIE ZEIT. With thanks to Quentin Bryar.