Esperanza Spalding –The rookie of 2011 turns one year wiser
ONE year later there was no jaw-dropping upset, no demure acceptance speech, no fresh affront to Justin Bieber’s watchful fan cabal.
This time around Esperanza Spalding caused less of a stir at the Grammy Awards, where she’d prevailed as best new artist in 2011, shocking a field that included Bieber and another platinumselling megastar, the rapper-crooner Drake.
Not to imply that Spalding, an irrepressible young bassist and singer with a foundation in jazz, took it easy at this year’s Grammys. She played a concert with high school musicians, did red carpet interviews and presented in the classical category. But you wouldn’t have seen her on the network broadcast – for that you’d have to wait a couple of weeks for, strangely enough, the Oscars – and the lower profile suited her just fine.
The day before flying to Los Angeles for her Grammy week duties last month, she practically batted away a question about the impact of the best new artist award on her life and career.
“More attention,” was her unusually succinct reply, though she immediately fleshed it out with a metaphor. “Before the Grammy last year I used to say it’s like being a worker ant, going back and forth to get the food, and all of a sudden someone’s watching you and following you along.” She held up an imaginary magnifying glass. “But now I see that the spotlight can actually directly serve the music.” That conviction courses through Radio Music Society, her fourth album.
A collection of groove-based songs, almost all originals, it’s Spalding’s version of a crossover pop album. At the same time its credits include dozens of her fellow jazz musicians. Bringing them on board meant a lot to Spalding, who has clung to her worker-ant affinities even as public perception, and her own fresh-faced ambitions, conspired to anoint her queen of the colony. She’d already reached a lower tier of celebrity before her Grammy, turning up in Vogue, Banana Republic ads and settings as rarified as the White House. Her utopian urge to share the spotlight sits a bit uneasily against the very singular nature of her stardom, in which she’s naturally complicit.
Spalding, 27, has a petite frame, delicate features and a silhouette usually distinguished by the dandelion bloom of her Afro. Her ebullient personality matches that of a perpetual overachiever. During a lunch interview in Greenwich Village she answered most questions in discursive bursts, quick with her cadences and opinions. And while she allowed that the last year has involved “a lot of blah-blahblahing about myself” – even her term for an interview carries the alliterative punch of scat singing – she shrugged off the notion that greater fame meant more distractions. A week earlier she’d been at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, playing a concert with the pianist Herbie Hancock; a song she’d composed for the occasion was performed by Corinne Bailey Rae.
Multitasking comes naturally to Spalding, who grew up in Portland, Oregon, and now splits her time between New York and Austin, Texas, and has made her mark not just as a virtuoso jazz bassist or an effortlessly nimble singer but as an exotic hybrid of the two. The very nature of her talent is exceptional: female bassists are a rarity in jazz, as are bassists who double convincingly on vocals. “There are so few people who have ever been able to do that like her, where she can really be two separate voices at once,” said the veteran arranger Gil Goldstein, who produced Spalding’s 2010 album, Chamber Music Society, and helped with one track on the new release. “It’s a total two-voice counterpoint.
I’m very happy to hear her just sing or just play bass, but when she isn’t doing both, I feel like something’s missing.” But it was musicians h i p , rather than no v e l t y , that got her up and running.
“From the first tune we played together, she had a beautiful, flowing feel, and brought a real melodic approach to the bass part,” said the saxophonist Joe Lovano, who taught Spalding in a combo class at the Berklee College of Music, and soon took her on tour. Lovano later formed Us Five, with Spalding strictly on bass, alongside a pianist and two drummers; the band had a nominated album at this year’s Grammys. The drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, who also first encountered Spalding at Berklee, included her as part of an all-female cast on The Mosaic Project (Concord Jazz), which won the Grammy for best jazz vocal album last month. (Spalding was one of its feature singers.) They also recently unveiled a trio with the estimable postbop pianist Geri Allen. The power of the ensemble is palpable for Spalding, and so is the wisdom of her elders. When the jazz magazine DownBeat decided to run a cover article on Radio Music Society, she suggested that the photo shoot also include Lovano, Carrington and the drummer Jack DeJohnette, who all appear on the album.
“One thing that irks me a little bit is this idea that people paying attention to you is good for everybody,” she said. “But it’s such a focused beam of light that that’s not realistic. Unless you intentionally go, like, ‘I’m with him!”’ She crooked one arm as if to pull in the person next to her. “So the idea of this society is: Yeah, we are making this music. And it really takes a ‘we’ to make this kind of music.” Spalding hasn’t always been quite so magnanimous, but then she hasn’t had this much leeway. She was 21 when she released her debut, Junjo, on the Spanish label Ayva. Esperanza, the first album on her current label, Heads Up International, came two years later. It suggested a polyglot take on jazz-pop, and if it felt a bit eager to impress, Spalding had a point to prove, at least in jazz circles.
“There is an assumption that if you’re young and pretty, you will get all these opportunities that are way beyond your musical foundation,” she said.
By the time she released Chamber Music Society, an art-song project characterised by interior, acoustic arrangements, she was the rare jazz artist with mainstream cachet. The Grammy amplified everything, not least her sales: According to Nielsen SoundScan her first two Heads Up releases have each sold nearly 120,000 copies, a phenomenal figure for jazz.
“I always say that the p r o b l e m with jazz accessibility is not the content of the music, it’s people’s ability to access it,” Spalding said.
“Meaning, if you don’t already listen to it or go to concerts, how would you even hear jazz music?” She conceived of Radio Music Society as the extroverted, electric flip side of Chamber Music Society, originally with the intention of making songs that could get airplay. But as she got deeper into the process, she realised she didn’t want to excise solos just to suit the constraints of a radio format.
While Radio Music Society is crowded with several generations of jazz musicians – including her old mentor from Portland, the trumpeter Thara Memory, along with his students – she’s front and centre at every turn.
Which is partly a matter of style: Radio Music Society reaches most for the gleam of aspirational pop in the Stevie Wonder vein. Land of the Free reflects on the exoneration of a Texas man, Cornelius Dupree Jr, after 30 years of wrongful imprisonment for rape and robbery.
Vague Suspicions is about America’s violent incursions in the Muslim world: “They are faceless numbers in the headlines we’ve all read/Drone strike leaves 13 civilians dead.” These songs raise questions but don’t exactly point fingers, a distinction “I don’t think I’m taking a stand.
I’m inviting a listener into a dialogue.” The difference between those two actions seemed as clear to her as the difference between a lead vocal and the interplay of a band. After the Grammys she was due at the Academy Awards, as one of a handful of wellknown musicians playing, without fanfare, in a house band.
This had been the brainchild of the composer Hans Zimmer, the Oscars’ main musical director. “The concept,” she said, her eyes flashing, “is anti-stardom.” Things didn’t exactly shake out that way. Spalding did her shift in the band, but her defining moment came during an In Memoriam montage, when she stood beside a children’s choir and sang a touching version of What a Wonderful World. Speaking by phone a few days later Spalding said the performance had come about unexpectedly, at Zimmer’s urging; once again she’d been plucked from the ensemble for a star turn. At one point she found herself in a studio recording a reference track for the show’s producers and director. “I didn’t realise until later that it was like an audition,” she said, adding that the pressure wouldn’t have changed a thing. “The whole experience was really fun. It’s just too bad they didn’t show more of the orchestra.”