She is only 27, but jazz composer, vocalist and bassist Esperanza Spalding already has an impressive resume. It includes a 2011 Grammy for best new artist (over Justin Bieber and Florence + the Machine) and “Radio Music Society,” an album that hit No. 10 on the Billboard charts for all genres, not just jazz.
She has also been the focus of stories in the mainstream media, such as “Entertainment Weekly,” and has appeared on TV shows that don’t typically showcase jazz artists, such as “Austin City Limits” and “Later ... With Jools Holland.”
Tuesday, Spalding performs in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. She recently spoke to The Star about her three disciplines: singing, songwriting and playing bass.Q. You seem to be a jazz artist who is attracting fans from outside the jazz circles. Do you notice this at your shows? A.
I wouldn’t be able to draw a good general demographic makeup of a typical jazz audience, because I think it attracts a lot of people, especially in New York, where I go to see a lot of music.
But I know I’ve been able to play in other venues where jazz musicians don’t go typically, which may be simply put: If other jazz musicians went to those places, maybe they, too, would attract audiences off the beaten paths of jazz. I dig anyone who digs what I’m doing. If they like it, I love it.
Nobody thinks of themselves as a jazz musician. It’s kind of a beautiful thing to see. Anytime the band is somewhere and somebody asks, “What kind of music do you do?” everybody has to almost force themselves to say, “Oh, we’re jazz musicians.” It doesn’t feel comfortable to anybody.
That’s the music we study and we love and it’s really satisfying and it’s hard and you can get better at it, even though we all feel like babies now. The world of music is so big that every musician I know, jazz or otherwise, is into everything they know, everything that’s ever crossed their path that’s good.
I hope that diversity of influence and open-mindedness makes its way into the music — combined with the fact I’ve been exposed to people off the beaten path of jazz and been given the chance to perform in those kinds of venues. That might be the most important factor.One of your earliest music experiences was with a rock band, Noise for Pretend. How did that experience shape you and what did it teach you?
Finishing something on time was a big one. And also learning how to front a band. That’s where I started singing and playing for audiences. For that band, I signed on to be the bass player and background singer, which forced me to learn how to do that because I lied when they asked me if I could. I said I could, then I figured it out before the next rehearsal. But, I mean, the songs were the same every time. It’s not like something unexpected happened.
Then I started writing stuff and I’d bring it to the band and they’d like it and tweak it. Then they started tweaking it less and less and we’d rehearse it until we had an arrangement we liked. And I’d write lyrics. I was like 16 and 17 at the time. And we’d rehearse every week.
That was a really powerful incubator for exploring the kind of things I ultimately wanted to explore later and continue to explore with songwriting and singing and playing and presenting something and arrangements. The songs were a lot simpler.Has your songwriting evolved or improved since then?
It better have, otherwise something is wrong. With experience, problem solving happens in different and better ways. But it’s not necessarily an accumulative process. I can remember some melodies I wrote when I was 14, and they’re still great, in my opinion. And then something I might write now, with more experience, sucks. So it’s sort of like the skills of cultivating it and refining it can get more refined, and you can refine the process. But inspiration? Who knows where a freaking melody comes from?
Theoretically, technically, it should be some weird combination of what you’ve experienced. It couldn’t come from anywhere else. Yet we work at it as if somehow we had control over when we’re going to get the hit of inspiration.
But what we do have control over is the arsenal of tools we have to do justice to the inspiration when it comes. And in my life, that arsenal has expanded, if not improved.What are the differences between playing bass and singing?
There’s less acting involved in bass playing. I think of bass playing more like you are the doctor to your patients. You’re aware of everyone’s needs, of what’s happening, who’s dealing with what and you make sure you keep everybody on the up-and-up, improving and moving forward in their lives.
People can listen to a piece of music and not understand the intention and attention involved in playing great bass. The greatest bass players you’ll hardly even notice. What they play is such a powerful foundation, it just sort of blends into the overall amazing experience of the music, sort of like a great set design or film score.
But it’s there, and if something was off, you’d notice it, but what you are really paying attention to are the actors on stage. And their emotional state, the tension of the conversation: what are the personal dynamics? Because of our association with words, singing demands much more of a focused presence, more like acting. You can’t break the illusion. People have to suspend their disbelief to really believe whatever it is you’re singing about.
I don’t think people come to hear great voices, solely. I think they come to believe in whatever the singer is presenting, even if what they’re presenting is, “My voice is perfect and amazing and it’s going to blow your socks off.”
If it’s a song about love or loss, the singer really has to believe it. Watch someone like Sarah Vaughan or Abbey Lincoln or Doris Day. They mean that (stuff). They never break your belief for one second in what they’re singing. The delivery of the story, even if it’s trivial or trite. You are really the messenger. There’s much less forgiveness if you flub or fake something when you’re in front of people who are having a real experience.They are two very independent disciplines yet you do both at the same time. How do you master that?
I’m trying to think of a good analogy. You know, piano players: Functionally, the left hand is doing one thing and the right hand’s doing another. But they learn how to hear them sort of big picture — so they can hear what the left hand should do next and what the right hand should do, always in an improvised context, otherwise it’s just memorization.
There’s something magical that happens live when they’re each responding real time in a way you couldn’t have practiced. Yet it’s like you can practice for the unknown, too.
Maybe I’m a frustrated jazz pianist, but that’s what I strive for. That function of, “I’m going to play right-hand chords that are supportive and related to what other musicians are playing, and with the left hand the rhythm and the lines and shapes down there will have propulsion and accent the right places and have good shapes in the bass line.”
It all seems sort of insane and miraculous until you start piecing it together. And then it still is insane and miraculous. But you can work at it.