On Thursday, Esperanza Spalding performed her latest album, Chamber Music Society, at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, and after some Cuban food in the West Village, we chatted about her music. Learn a little more about this jazz virtuoso in this interview!
She is only 25. Bassist, vocalist, and composer, Esperanza Spalding is hands-down a musical genius and has been hailed as one of the most promising jazz artists of our generation. At the age of 5, she joined The Chamber Music Society of Oregon and left as concertmaster when she turned 15. By 20, she became an instructor at the world-renowned Berklee College of Music – the youngest ever appointed. Since then, Esperanza has performed on the Late Show with David Letterman, at a star-studded tribute to Prince at the BET awards, and for President Obama at the Nobel Prize Ceremony. When I met her at the Village Vanguard a few years ago, I told her I thought her performance was incredible. In response, she asked me where I got my shoes and whether we could go shopping sometime. It was an instant friendship.
On Thursday, Esperanza Spalding performed her latest album, Chamber Music Society
, at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, and after some Cuban food in the West Village, we chatted about her music.
Bettina Chin: What was your inspiration for your latest album, Chamber Music Society?
Esperanza Spalding: The project evolved from my repertoire of original compositions, some of which already had string arrangements. To make this album, I imagined a sonic space that would showcase the inherent intimacy among players when they perform together – somewhere between classical chamber music and the small-ensemble, improvisational jazz I’m been accustomed to performing.
BC: I actually first heard your music when you were the vocalist of Noise for Pretend (a defunct ‘indie’ band from Portland). Do you ever miss performing or composing pop music?
ES: Yes! I miss composing songs in a very simple format -- not that pop music is simple to write, but rather, the format of Noise for Pretend was simple: just voice, guitar, drums, and bass. With that band, the process of bringing a composition to life was simpler: I could go to the players with a complex idea, and all we had to do to turn it into a song was include a few more voices. Most of the stuff I write now requires a lot of arranging and practicing, so it could be months, even years, before I know what it would sound like. In a way, I find the limits of a ‘pop’ or ‘rock’ band to be more liberating.
BC: How do you categorize your music now?
ES: I don’t categorize my music really. Other people do and I just don’t argue with them. The term “jazz” has become watery as an idiom nowadays; its identity is no longer potent or unified. I identify myself as a jazz musician because I studied jazz and play it as a bassist. I explore the relationships among the twelve tones through jazz, but the music I write and play doesn’t solely exist within a jazz context. My music is evolving so quickly, and I want the music I make to be free to move into whatever genres it wants to fit into - at least, in a way in which anyone can hear my music without being restricted to thinking that it has to be “jazz.”
BC: Some music reviewers have commented that your music is more accessible than most jazz and even more conventional at times. Do you think that jazz is something that shouldn’t be?
ES: Well, jazz has fundamental elements that happen on stage or at a jam session: improvisation, soloing, spontaneity, and conversation. These elements are universally accessible in and of themselves. They are concepts that anyone can relate to because they’re the core of communication. So, jazz should be accessible – it must be – because it naturally is.
BC: What do you think is your best composition to date and why? Your favorite?
ES: That’s tricky because there are songs I like best and there are songs that everyone else likes best, and often, they aren’t the same songs. I have three favorites: one is "Cinnamon Tree," which is one that everyone seems to like as much as I do. It’s not out yet – it will be on my next album. Another song I really love is "Knowledge of Good and Evil," which is on Chamber Music Society
, but no one has really commented on it. I also love "I Adore You," from my last album, Esperanza
BC: I love "I Adore You." I think it’s your most joyous and uplifting tune to date. But you already know which one of your songs is my favorite.
ES: What is it?
BC: "Cinnamon Tree.
ES: (laughs) Of course. Are you going to let everyone know that the song is about you?
BC: No, probably not. So, what’s in store for your next album?
ES: My next album is called Radio Music Society
– it’ll come out next year. That project is a personal challenge to see if I can format my songs in a way such that an audience who is used to listening modern Top 40 radio will be able to enjoy, absorb, and interact with those four pillars of jazz I mentioned earlier. Most of the writing is already done.
BC: If you were granted your dream collaboration with a current “Top 40” performer, whom would you partner with and why?
ES: Andre 3000, for sure. His music, to my ear, is incredibly creative. He can take so many different colors, textures, grooves, and reconcile them all in the pop format. I don’t think many people realize just how many elements he compresses into each song he writes. And, he seems brave enough to explore almost anything. If we could find a middle ground between the acoustic stuff I make and the electronic music he makes, we could create something truly amazing.
BC: If you were going to have a meal with 3 people, alive or dead, who would they be and what would you eat?
ES: I’d invite Henry David Thoreau, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Mary Lou Williams. I’d like to make the meal together - it could really be anything. Each of us could cook a dish and of course, the conversation would start in the kitchen.
BC: Do you believe in magic?
ES: I believe that there are real phenomena on this Earth that cannot be explained from a purely scientific perspective.
BC: You know, I was actually hoping you’d break into song right then.
ES: I could sing about chicken nuggets if you want.
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