Esperanza Spalding © Sergio Cabanillas

Esperanza Spalding: Heading up in jazz and beyond, by Arturo Mora Rioja

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.
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 the bass.

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.

Esperanza Spalding © Sergio Cabanillas
Esperanza Spalding
© Sergio Cabanillas

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 after that?

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 was amazing.

Esperanza Spalding © Sergio Cabanillas
Esperanza Spalding
© Sergio Cabanillas

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, everything…?

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.

Esperanza Spalding © Sergio Cabanillas
Esperanza Spalding
© Sergio Cabanillas

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… It’s practising.

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 them before.

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 easy.

ARTURO MORA: I already asked you last year in Vitoria, but for our readers to know it: do you have perfect pitch?


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 pitch.

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.

Esperanza Spalding © Sergio Cabanillas
Esperanza Spalding
© Sergio Cabanillas

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 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 to.

Esperanza Spalding © Sergio Cabanillas
Esperanza Spalding
© Sergio Cabanillas

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, you know.

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 very strange.

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 I mean?

ARTURO MORA: So do you think the jazz world can be endogamic sometimes?

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 that’s it!

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.

Esperanza Spalding © Sergio Cabanillas
Esperanza Spalding
© Sergio Cabanillas

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 it.

(1) Play-a-long practice books and CDs by Jamey Aebersold, common among jazz students.

Text © 2008 Arturo Mora Rioja
Photographs © 2008 Sergio Cabanillas

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