For the magnificent Esperanza Spalding’s birthday, here’s a long profile I had the pleasure of writing about her for Jazziz magazine in early 2016, framed around the release of Emily’s D+Evolution.
Esperanza Spalding Feature, Jazziz
As part of the initial publicity blitz for Emily’s D+Evolution, Esperanza Spalding’s first release since 2012, scheduled to drop in April, Spalding’s management and Concord Records, her label, scheduled a press day in mid-December. It transpired at the Milk Bar, a low-key café in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood, where Spalding, incognito in a red head-scarf and tan jacket, sat at a small, elevated back-corner table, fielding questions from four journalists in separate 50-minute interviews.
There was much to discuss about the album, and little time to do it. Channeling the character of “Emily,” described by Spalding as “a spirit or being that I recognize and am informed by,” the singer-bassist performs 11 original songs, all conceived for the project, and a rousing album-ending cover of “I Want It Now,” Anthony Newley’s anthemic paean to instant gratification. Her songcraft is formidable, and she hits all the notes. She sequences the lyrics — on love, self-empowerment, race, class, Judas and other matters — into an ambiguous narrative. Her supple soprano voice more than does justice to the memorable melodies; she phrases freely with rhythms that counterpoint grooves of various provenance — some crackling, some undulating — that she generates on electric bass. Guitarist Matthew Stevens complements the flow with kinetic sound painting, while drummers Kareem Riggins (who plays on eight tracks) and Justin Tyson (who plays on four) propel it with a wide palette of beats and textures.
In its instrumentation, rock ’n’ roll attitude and explicit singer-songwriter focus, Emily’s D+Evolution diverges from its two chart-topping predecessors, comprising music composed between 2006 and 2011. Spalding won a 2013 Grammy for “Best Jazz Vocal Album” with Radio Music Society, a dance-friendly program, both sophisticated and accessible, that revealed the breadth of her songwriting and arranging skills. Spalding has described]Radio Music Society as the “extroverted’ successor to the “introverted,” Brazil-tinged Chamber Music Society, the 11-tune recital that earned her a “Best New Artist” Grammy over Drake and Justin Bieber in 2011. Assisted by arranger Gil Goldstein, she conjured evocative arrangements for jazz trio, string quartet and her voice, deployed as an instrument in the ensemble on seven tracks; she also sings lyrics on four original songs.
“I’ll never be able to catch you up with the last four years of my life — it’s just too dense,’ Spalding says. “I can’t explain why or how, and I can’t explain the evolution of this music.” She began to think of “opening a door for Emily” in October 2013, while on a self-imposed hiatus from “weird political bullshit with people and managers, and being a psychologist for my band.”
Emily is Spalding’s middle name, the name her family called her as a child in Portland, Oregon, when she was curious about acting and dance,” interests she shelved while immersing herself in musical studies. Approaching her 30th birthday, Spalding “realized that Emily wanted to come out, to say some things, play some things and perform some things.”
After sketching out some ideas and titles, Spalding began to form “an energetic picture of this performer, a sense that this idea was an armature I could build on.” She realized that Emily wanted to be plugged in and loud. She made demos, and, in spring 2014, contacted her desired collaborators to workshop the music on gigs. She made adjustments, recorded some tunes in June 2014, then a few more that November. She was already determined to stage the project, and she started touring to figure out how it would work in a concert setting. Toward that end, in the summer, she began working with director Will Weigler, also a Portland native. In September, she reentered the studio to re-record everything. “Then I knew the label wouldn’t let me mess with it any more,” she says, “so I turned it in.”
“Everyone is important to the total projection of the idea,” Spalding says. “It doesn’t feel like work for hire; it’s like we’re a troupe. I knew when I invited everybody in we’d be doing more than just standing up and playing awesome songs.” She elaborated in terms evocative of Wayne Shorter, who she describes as her “hero, guru and friend”: “We need co-explorers. We need a partner in crime as you explore uncharted territory — somebody who is resourceful and ready to go down that dark tunnel and find out why it smells like swamp, and somebody who can rig up a fire with nothing. That’s the kind of person you want in your corner.”
As an example, she mentions guitarist Stevens. “He can take an idea: ‘Can this sound ominous but hopeful? And can the texture be kind of thin but have a rippling effect?’ He’ll go, ‘OK,’ and find that with a pedal or a loop or whatever. I hear instrumental music as language, too. It feels like narrative and character, and character interaction, and dynamic storytelling. That’s how it sounds to me, whether there’s lyrics or not.
“When the record comes out and we start touring this performance in April, I’ll be presenting Emily’s D+Evolution in at least the starting place I envisioned it could be. Everybody has to be ready for an adventure and forget about everything that happened before. See it for what it is and let it tell you what it is.”
“Seeing” is the operative word. The album cover portrays Spalding as Emily — in a white V-top, white hood, white slacks and white sneakers — foregrounded against what might be a post-apocalyptic landscape of rocks, barren trees and a turbulent sky. Two more photos show “Emily” and “Esperanza” as doppelgängers — Emily, hair braided, with teal glasses, in a red bra under what looks like a fur coat, bracelets on her wrists, sits on a bed alongside Esperanza, wearing a yellow dress striped horizontally with stylized Nubian figures, and no eyewear. Another photo has Emily in that yellow dress, poised between a stuffed lioness and a sculpture of a very dark-skinned woman with exaggerated features, in a gold tunic, gold belt and gold trousers. Another portrays Esperanza, facing the camera full-on, with a resplendent Angela Davis Afro and a streamlined black turtleneck.
“When I saw Emily the first time, it was clear she was picking up terrestrial frequencies,” Spalding says. “I knew her hair was down. I knew it was heavy. You could feel gravity through it, affecting her scalp. That’s part of why Emily needs twists. Glasses … it’s what she wears. It’s who she is.”
Minus visual aids, Spalding’s new music doesn’t seem like a radical departure from her previous work. “I don’t take that offensively,” she says. “But I think you’ll see it differently over time. Even if you don’t, that’s your prerogative.”
Where does Esperanza leave off and Emily begin? “If my name is not Emily in a performance, I’m Esperanza Spalding,” Spalding responds with a certain asperity. “When you watch Meryl Streep play a witch in Into the Woods, hopefully you’re not thinking, ‘Oh, Meryl Streep as the witch.’ You’re thinking the witch. Emily came to be Emily, not Esperanza. To manifest that she’s created her own world, which is its own expression of that spirit. This is obviously not a jazz record. Emily doesn’t play acoustic bass. She is not a jazz musician.”
On the day after our conversation, Spalding began a six-night run at the Village Vanguard as acoustic bassist in the ACS Trio, a collaborative venture with pianist Geri Allen and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington that coalesced after the three women performed on Carrington’s ambitious Mosaic Project recording in 2011.
“I don’t know what will happen this week,” Spalding says at the Milk Bar. “It’s going to be a great experiment of not depending on agility, of ‘What do you do with less?’” She explained that she’d sprained her pointer finger three weeks before, and was wary of reinjuring it. “I’ll have to honor the effortless approach to playing bass. It’s great to know you can try that, and it won’t be ‘Pull your weight’ but instead ‘We’ll find a way to make it work.’ That mentality that we’re all in this together is exciting — though it’s usually the case in any band I play in.”
Six days later, Spalding joined Allen and Carrington on the Vanguard bandstand for their 12th and final set of a week during which friends James Genus and Matt Brewer had “come to the rescue when my muscle went out.” To protect blisters on her playing hand, she wore a salmon-colored glove that complemented a light jacket with thin, pale stripes. Indeed, Spalding was on point throughout an hour-long performance that featured highly reharmonized, stretched-out renderings of Shorter’s “Fall,” “Infant Eyes,” “Virgo” and “Nefertiti” and Allen’s “Unconditional Love.” On the latter piece, Spalding sang an extended wordless improvisation, as she had done on other repertoire on an earlier night when, as Carrington put it the next day, “she almost didn’t have an instrument.”
“Esperanza has a fine musician’s melodic and harmonic understanding, and chops to improvise on a very high level vocally, which a lot of singers cannot,” Carrington says. “She’s a cutting-edge, creative jazz musician rooted from playing the bass and composing, and she has a more commercial, pop side, more electric-bass driven and groove oriented. She considers herself a poet, rightfully so, because her lyrics can stand alone as stories and poetry. But Emily isn’t so far away from the music she’s already been creating. To me it’s a natural evolution — and a way to introduce her to a new audience of sophisticated listeners who come more out of rock and pop than jazz or r&b.”
“I’ve always told Esperanza that she could make a jazz vocal album where she only sings,” says pianist Fred Hersch, a mentor to Spalding since she introduced herself to him at the Vanguard five or six years ago. They played a duo concert last May at SFJazz, during Spalding’s second season as its resident Artistic Director. “Esperanza is a world-class singer,” Hersch continues. “Her improvising is crazy good, and she hears everything. She doesn’t have a big, luxurious voice, but sings with so much flexibility and spontaneity. It’s the same with her bass playing. She plays with great energy and feeling and a quality of alertness, an ability always to respond in the moment.”
As Spalding noted earlier, she relates to notes and tones as a kind of alternate or equivalent language, as do many musicians who learn music at an early age. By her account, she could carry a tune at 5, the year she started on violin. “I played music like it was a toy,” she says. “Like somebody gives you an erector set without the instructions, and you start building stuff because you want to.”
Skipping classes one day at 15, she entered a high school music room, and stumbled upon a bass. “I liked it, and then I got better,” she says. “It’s the instrument that stuck. It’s the instrument I love. When I hear piano or trumpet or saxophone, I’m like, ‘My God, I could never do that.’ When I hear bass it’s, ‘Oh, I hear you.’ I feel I understand it, it speaks to me — it’s how I want to play in the band.”
Neither garnering five Grammys nor pursuing a high-profile career have dissuaded Spalding from wanting to play in the band or burnish her instrumental skills. In addition to ACS Trio, she played at this year’s Charlie Parker Festival in Tompkins Square Park with Joe Lovano, her teacher at Berklee. She’s played, when available, with Lovano’s Us Five ensemble since it debuted at the Vanguard in 2009, and with that band made the recordings Folk Art and Bird Songs. She spent the entire summer of 2014 touring with Tom Harrell’s Echoes of a Dream project, a suite of sextet music incorporating three horns, two basses, drums and her voice.
“I don’t know who you think I am or if you expected something different,” she says when asked what motivates her to assume the sideman function so assiduously. “I’m surprised it’s even a question that I do that. To me it’s like, ‘Oh, you still feed and clothe your children; what compels you to do that?’ ‘Because I’m a fuckin’ mother, dude! That’s what moms do.’” She paused. “I can think of some really neglectful mothers. I guess that question implies an expectation I’d be something else. I’ve never lived the something else, so I don’t know what to tell you.”
Why did she join Harrell’s project? “I prefer that question,” she says. “If Tom Harrell asks you to come play bass on a tour and wrote all the music with me in mind to be in his ensemble, and I get to sing and get paid to hear him solo every night … any bass player would say, ‘Hell, yeah!’ Fortunately, he asked me to tour with him during a year I made myself available to play, because I was so ready not to have to be responsible for anything or anybody. Whatever I could have done during those months is no way comparable to or better than being with Tom.”
She adds, unprompted: “No matter how busy I am, if Wayne Shorter ever asks me to do anything, I’m going to make sure I can do it.” Carrington had noted Shorter’s influence on the chords that infuse various sections of Emily’s D+Evolution, as well as on Spalding’s previous work. Spalding agrees. “I hope that Wayne is influencing my work,” she says. “He is influencing my mind and heart. He inspires me to be courageous all the time, and do what I dare to dream.
“Music doesn’t feel easy to me. It doesn’t feel like second nature. It feels difficult. You go get it. You see it, you find the tools, and then you make it the best that you can.”
“I just recently met Emily,” said stylist Cassie O’Sullivan, who first worked with Esperanza Spalding in 2010, when photographer Sandrine Lee recruited her to style Spalding for the cover of Chamber Music Society, on which the leader wears a white button-up shirt under a black vest. She subsequently styled Spalding for Radio Music Society, and helped her to visually portray the particulars of “Emily’s” appearance. O’Sullivan had dropped by the Milk Bar to chat with Spalding’s assistant and have a bite, and agreed to discuss the contrasting styles of “Emily” and “Esperanza.”
“Emily was unavailable to speak, so at first I worked with her telepathically,” said O’Sullivan, who has run Spalding’s style blog since that time. “We went to a thrift store, and Emily picked out a pair of ski pants. I saw the glasses on the rack.”
O’Sullivan elaborates. “Emily’s style is unification of the entire world. For example, a piece of couture that works really well with a piece of beadwork that was done by Native Americans maybe 100 years ago. It’s earthy and etheric, high-tone and low-tone, high-vibration and low-vibration. Her style is similar to Esperanza’s in that it’s always moving and changing and sustainable. Esperanza’s is pretty and sweet, form-fitting and constructed, with common sense to it — something maybe anybody could wear.”
Before discussing how Emily and Esperanza use makeup differently, O’Sullivan asserted their shared values. “We always search for the cleanest makeup, because the toxins in Bisphenol-A makeup enter the bloodline 10 times as fast through the skin as when it goes into your mouth or stomach,” she says. “Esperanza’s makeup style was very natural, and that’s how I worked with her. Maybe we would put on all-natural eyelash and do a nice blended line. Emily’s makeup is maybe more of an intuition Cleopatra. She prefers a defined line.”
O’Sullivan doesn’t perceive the differences as dramatic. “Emily and Esperanza and I really don’t argue. We just agree and we disagree. It’s multi-dimensional. It’s facets of the jewel, facets of the gem.” —TP