Esperanza Spalding has just released Esperanza,
her first record for Heads Up International, which she presented
live in Madrid last September. A few hours before the show
Arturo Mora had the chance to interview Esperanza at her hotel
in a loose, relaxed, fun conversation.
Esperanza Spalding and Arturo Mora.
Photo: Sergio Cabanillas.
ARTURO MORA: You’ve just published Esperanza,
your first record for Heads Up International. How's your relationship
with the new company?
ESPERANZA SPALDING: Great, it’s amazing, they have
a lot of confidence in me, they gave me kind of complete creative
freedom. They’re really great, I feel really lucky to
be with them.
ARTURO MORA: Listening to both of your records and to your
live shows it seems that the piano plays a very important
role in your music.
ESPERANZA SPALDING: Sure, that’s true. I kind of build
my band around the piano player. I am the bassist and the
singer, and the piano goes like in the middle. I have to be
engaged with the piano player and the piano player has to
be fond of what I’m doing with the voice, I need somebody
who has enough ideas and confidence so that he can play and
be able to accommodate but also be giving a lot of ideas for
Junjo [her first record]
was a more collaborative project with Aruán [Ortiz,
pianist] and [drummer Francisco] Mela, so it wasn’t
my music, my band. In Esperanza there’s Leo
[Genovese], who’s the perfect piano player for me.
ARTURO MORA: Otherwise in the last tune of your new record
you start playing only voice and bass, and then Niño
Josele’s guitar blends in. Have you thought on doing
anything without a piano, with, say, a guitar instead?
ESPERANZA SPALDING: Yeah, now in the band there’s also
a guitar. To me the idea of a live show is to get the widest
range of sound, color, texture, tension and density, and of
course using another harmonic instrument helps. And on top
of that Leo also plays [Fender] Rhodes and
melodica, so between the four (piano, Rhodes, melodica
and guitar) we can find a lot of different textures.
ARTURO MORA: You’re now playing a Doolin bass,
which is an acoustic bass guitar. When did you decide to use
it? What does it give you that the acoustic bass doesn’t?
ESPERANZA SPALDING: Sometimes in the past I’ve written
things that I thought were for the electric [bass], but I
don’t want to add that sound to the band, I think it
would be abrasive. I never thought I would use it, but then
once somewhere else in Montreal there’s this guy Mike
Doolin, who’s an instrument maker. He actually does
guitars, and he’d made one fretless bass just to experiment,
and I saw it and said: “let me play it”, and I
never thought that I would say this, but I really wanted to
play that bass. I had never played electric bass until then.
It gives some effects because of
its action, how far the strings are from the fingerboard and
the way that the strings are plucked. There are some songs
that actually need an electric, but I don’t want the
sound of an electric, so this still has the acoustic, more
complicated sound, there’s more depth in the sound waves,
‘cause it’s the sound of the body ringing, not
just the strings in the pickup, so to me it’s kind of
an effective electric without having to compromise the sound
of the group. Though I really dig that in other contexts,
of course, and I’m sure there’ll be a day, in
my group, when I’ll start using a Fender.
ARTURO MORA: You played violin as a teenager. Have you picked
the instrument back?
ESPERANZA SPALDING: No. I played violin for ten years, from
five to fifteen, and that was enough for me [laughs].
ARTURO MORA: In recent interviews you told a story about
the advice Pat Metheny gave you which encouraged you to become
a full-time musician. Have you had any chance to meet Pat
ESPERANZA SPALDING: No. To me it was important, but to him...
I just think he was being a nice guy, I mean, it was really
sweet that he did that. The months leading out to that week
I’d been like researching in New York different programs
for study, and I had to decide at the end of that Spring semester
to lay the bass down, or the music down and go to something
else, and he was just being friendly, he had no idea of any
of that, of course, and he came to the studio and said: “Esperanza,
I’m just curious on what do you plan on doing?”,
and he said: “You know, I meet a lot of great musicians
every day, and I can tell that there’s something about
you that, if you work hard, if you decide to do it, and if
you really really work hard, you can just go as far as you
wanna go.” And then he went: “OK, have a nice
day”, but for me it was like: “well, if I was
looking for an answer, that was it.” And I’ve
seen him since then, but just passing by. I don’t know
him, you know, but that interaction was a whole lot for me.
ARTURO MORA: Kind of a revelation?
ESPERANZA SPALDING: Yeah, ‘cause people say a lot of
things, a lot of good things, so it’s hard to assess
where you’re at, but as a student everything looks so
far away, still to me now, that you can’t feel if you’re
moving. You try so far, but you can’t tell how far you’ve
come. So it only takes one experience like that, when someone
comes and say: “Hey, you’re doing the right thing,
just keep going.” Then, I can keep going forever. That
ARTURO MORA: Most of the compositions on your new record
are yours. What do you look for when composing? Which is your
goal when facing a new tune?
ESPERANZA SPALDING: To finish it [laughs].
ARTURO MORA: In a few words... [laughs].
ESPERANZA SPALDING: I usually have kind of five or six tunes
like cooking, and I have to go like: “Esperanza, just
finish this song.” Because it seems like every song,
every composition has its own character, like from the first
few notes, it’s like a genetic make-up, you know: every
cell will tell you about the rest of the body. So I have like
an idea, like a little phrase, or a little harmonic progression,
and in that progression there’s all the genetic material
that I need to make the song, so it’s just about trying
to build the song that should exist, the character that should
exist from that, and not just put whatever, you know. So it’s
really like trying to hear what the song is gonna tell you
that it wants to be. It’s just like you hear a few bars,
and sometimes things can surprise you, but it all sounds like
it’s supposed to be there, like it has a character.
So for me it’s like as you finish one section and go
for the bridge, you feel like it needs a bridge, like you
can hear in a very passive unconscious way, like what the
bridge wants to be, and then it’s just finding that.
It’s almost like: close your eyes, quiet your mind and
you can almost hear what needs to come next, and that’s
the challenge, to actually find it.
ARTURO MORA: So it’s kind of a bottom-up development,
you don’t start from a global vision of the song, but
from a small piece to develop from.
ESPERANZA SPALDING: Yeah, when I hear a little piece or something,
I’m not conscious, there are parts that are clear and
make me go for the rest of it, you know.
ARTURO MORA: You’re a teacher at Berklee, everybody
knows. What material do you use to teach bass playing? Where
do you focus the most: technique, tuning, sound, jazz language,
ESPERANZA SPALDING: It really depends... I can say across
the board where I focus the most is on teaching students how
to learn, because I think there’s a lot of time that’s
wasted out of class practicing, studying, listening... So
what I try to tell my students is how to use at the most potential
everything that they do for learning. It also means how do
they practice, to make sure they get the most out of it, when
they’re listening, how they’re listening... What
I try to do is show them how to find information, so if they
come in with a core idea I just help them find exercises.
My idea is: I want them to know how, in the future, if they
feel they’re missing something in their playing, they
know how to go out, they know where to look, how to look and
how to incorporate it back into their own playing, because
that’s what you have to do as a musician, and you always
have mentors, but... And the amazing thing about that is that
the students are teaching themselves to find their own way
and actually absorbing information.
ARTURO MORA: Regarding singing and playing bass at the same
time: does this happen naturally or do you study each performance
slowly trying to mix both actions?
ESPERANZA SPALDING: For some specific songs I work slowly
to put it together, and then also I practice exercises to
help with singing and playing and having independence being
able to hear one thing and play another thing and hear both.
I’m really a fan of Aebersold’s (1), not necessarily
to play with the band [on Aebersold play-along’s], but
to play each chord skill on the bass and then sing it from
a different interval like together, playing the scale one
direction on the bass and sing it other direction with the
voice, so in real time it’s harmony moving outside of
yourself. This way you can really hear it in both voices.
When I really solo I can only hear one mind, if I want to
solo singing and playing, how can I make it to hear both...
Or some tunes for a show... If I wanna do this Betty Carter
song, I figure out how to do the arrangement, how to practice
that specific song slowly at first, then increase the tempo
until it comes natural, and then on the stage the song itself
is being practiced, the skills necessary I’ve practiced
ARTURO MORA: So instead of doing it naturally, you work hard
to make it sound naturally.
ESPERANZA SPALDING: Yeah, and the funny thing is that like
at the very beginning everybody does it kind of subconsciously,
learning songs, I can remember harmony, melodies, the form,
and that’s very natural, you know. But the part that’s
unnatural is when you’re onstage there are many things
you’re responsible for besides just the act of singing
and playing. I practice a lot, so I don’t have to think
about that at all. As a singer it’s almost like acting,
you have to be engaged in every word, you have to feel it,
it has nothing to do with just singing a tune, or remember
the lyrics. I practice very hard and then onstage that becomes
ARTURO MORA: I already asked you last year in Vitoria, but
for our readers to know it: do you have perfect pitch?
ESPERANZA SPALDING: No.
ARTURO MORA: That’s what you told me then [laughs].
ESPERANZA SPALDING: I’m working on that, but it’s
weird, I heard a lot of people having the same thing, it’s
a strange phenomenon, like if you’re touching your instrument
you know which note it is, like if you hear a note or a chord
somewhere you know what it is. But I don’t have perfect
I know people that have perfect
pitch and I’ve seen them going mad on gigs when their
instrument is a bit out of tune.
ARTURO MORA: Let’s talk a little bit about your gear:
which acoustic bass model do you use, which is your preferred
amp, pick-up, and who’s your luthier?
ESPERANZA SPALDING: OK, I have a few basses, but my main
bass is... I don’t know what it is, it’s like
probably mid-1800’s, either French or German, but with
a lot of work done. It’s spruce top and the fingerboard
is not ebony, I don’t know what it is. It’s bigger
than 3/4 and smaller than 4/4, but no set size. And I also
have a bass with a maple fingerboard that sounds amazing,
I don’t know who made it. And I also use the Czech-Ease
that David Gage makes. David Gage is also my luthier. I started
using that bass like in July and it’s great, I love
it, and the pick-up I use is also The Realist by David Gage.
I also use the Gallien-Krueger MB150 [bass amp] but I’ve
been having some problems with it recently, the sound is now
different from the one when I had it new, but I use GK amps.
ARTURO MORA: It looks like your musical spectrum is very
wide. What music do you listen to just for pleasure?
ESPERANZA SPALDING: Many things. I’m becoming like
an addict to Amazon.com. I hear the name of an artist on the
radio and then I go to Amazon and there are five of their
CD’s, they come in the mail in a few days. I listen
to A Tribe Called Quest, r&b, Cee-Lo... It’s hard
to categorize someone like this, it’s like they’re
the masters of production, like the Wayne Shorters of producing,
you know, like the sounds that they hear and bring in are
so creative, it’s like Outkast, you know. But it’s
not really for pleasure, I’m always like trying to incorporate
something in my music. That music is so exciting and interesting
that I try to figure out which sounds and grooves could be
used in an acoustic band to get the same sort of feeling in
a live acoustic band.
But also recently I’ve been
into the Ed Blackwell and Don Cherry record. My iTunes is
like, you know, 89 genres, as many as you can have, and I
usually hit shuffle until I find a record I want to listen
ARTURO MORA: Do you consider yourself a jazz musician?
ESPERANZA SPALDING: Yeah, sure I do. And the good thing about
that is that that doesn’t mean I’m not like any
other kind of musician as well, I mean, I wear many hats,
SERGIO CABANILLAS: Considering yourself a jazz musician doesn’t
make sense with something you said last year in Vitoria about
buying your mom a house... [laughs].
ARTURO MORA: Yeah, regarding the pop tune you played as an
encore. We are the jazz police! [laughs].
ESPERANZA SPALDING: [laughing] Ah, but it’s good! It’s
like the other day, I went to Israel with Terri Lyne Carrington
and Geri Allen, and a pop musician was there, opening the
same festival, and the same crowd is filling this stage. Isn’t
it strange, that the title is what makes the difference, the
trade mark, you know? Not where you focus the music, because
the same people were coming to both shows, it’s like
So yeah, I do consider myself a jazz musician, and that
doesn’t really mean anything, all it means is I can
play jazz well. Almost every artist we know from the r&b
or pop world knows all the r&b, all the hip-hop, all the
soul and all the jazz, and that’s really impressive.
Someone like John Mayer, he knows all the rock, all the folk,
all the soul, all the r&b and all the jazz. Chris Botti,
that cat can really play, but he chose to do what he does.
Jazz musicians need like a wake up call, everybody else knows
our music, but we don’t know their music, you know what
ARTURO MORA: So do you think the jazz world can be endogamic
ESPERANZA SPALDING: Of course. It’s very like homogeneous,
it’s so stupid and sad. Someone like Robert Glasper,
for example, his music is beautiful, he’s so amazing.
But he can play with anybody, and he does. You go to a show
and you see everyone at the show, any kind of person, and
ARTURO MORA: Jazz has been fed by crossover since its inception.
ESPERANZA SPALDING: Exactly, since the beginning, it’s
always been like that. Like Motown, the rhythm section were
out playing jazz together, and they came to the studio and
played that, you know.
ARTURO MORA: Which are your upcoming plans in the short term,
and which path would you like your music to develop into in
the long term?
ESPERANZA SPALDING: Short term, I guess, I have a few projects
with other musicians, I’m working on the music for the
next record, so in the next few months I’ll be in the
process of really locking down, making clear what’s
gonna happen on every track, who I need where, which instruments
I need on each song, and that’s a lot of work, you know,
the way that I wanna do it. There’s also something with
Terri Lyne Carrington, we’re talking about the possibility
of a proper project together. She’s incredible, an amazing
composer too. Unbelievable.
And in the long term... working with everybody, be able
to play alongside great musicians, ‘cause that’s
really how I learn, you know. Also bringing them to my music.
Improving the show, working hard on that. And always preparing
myself to make sure that whatever does happen next I can nail
(1) Play-a-long practice books and CDs by Jamey Aebersold,
common among jazz students.