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The 'evolution' of Esperanza Spalding

Esperanza Spalding
Photo by Holly Andres

Today happens to be Esperanza Spalding’s birthday and in less than a week she will be performing live at Turner Hall Ballroom on Oct. 24.

For those who aren’t familiar with her and her music.  An episode of Mr. Rogers inspired her to get into music. She is the first jazz artist to the win the Grammy Award for Best New Artist. She beat out Justin Bieber, which cause anger among Bieber fans.   A personal favorite of President Obama, Spalding was selected by the commander in chief to perform at the White House on several occasions. She has performed with artists like Janelle Monae and the late, great Prince. She is also a huge fan of Joni Mitchell.

Esperanza Spalding recently released an amazing concept album titled “Emily’s D+Evolution,” which is a sonic departure from her previous albums.  She worked with David Bowie's producer Toni Visconti on part of the album.

I got a chance to talk to her about that album, the meaning of jazz, her favorite book and more.

Read more below.

TM: What did jazz mean to you, when you first start playing?

 ES: What it meant to me the first time I was playing (jazz) was a place where I felt at home. The people I was playing with, the experience of playing bass in improvised music for the first time and my strengths being welcomed; playing by ear and being intuitive and being able to improvise, based on what I was hearing in real time. I had struggled with that as a classical musician. I felt like I wasn’t good at what was expected in the role of a classical musician. That’s what it meant to me – people who get me, who welcome me. It meant getting music finally. Like it was my kind of music.

I listened to people play and I knew what they were saying, it resonated with me. I wanted to be able to speak like that, and I wanted to be part of that.

TM: Has its meaning changed since you first started playing?

ES: Honestly, I don’t really think about what it means, but now I know a lot of people don’t think the music I’m making right now is jazz, which is fine. It’s just… I never thought of it much as an aesthetic medium. I thought about what we were striving for in the music. The nature of exploration and using preparation as a means to abandon your preparations, you know? And be completely present and spontaneous in the moment. I think those qualities aren’t limited to an aesthetic. As you know, the aesthetic of the music changes constantly, that’s the nature of it.

Maybe now, I think more of the music as I’m reflecting those ideas of how you play it, and the intention in the music. But that’s because I don’t play saxophone, I don’t play trumpet. I don’t associate those instruments being quintessential to the music. Although of course, those are elements we commonly associate with it.

Washington, Robert Glasper, BadBadnotGood, Thundercat and how they are redefining jazz. What are your thoughts about this “resurgence” or “redefinition?”

 ES: All I can think about is how Barry Harris is still here. Keith Jarrett makes records all the time. Tarus Mateen is around; Billy Hart is around. I guess “resurgence” just means, in terms of the dominant culture, maybe?

 TM: Reaching a new generation, I guess

ES: They are reaching a part of the new generation. There’s always little kids in high school jazz band, it’s reaching them. Duke Ellington is still reaching them. They’re great artists, of course, everybody you mentioned. They’re doing their thing. I just don’t think popularity or commercial viability is a prerequisite for jazz reaching people. People who like the sound they’re making are in the majority now in terms of people who would buy quote on quote “jazz music,” but I think… if you’re into the music as an art form, you’re going to be just as moved by a Weather Report record or a Jaki Byard record as something that came out five years ago.

Music is always a balance of what came before and what’s happening right this minute. I don’t know if it’s a new resurgence, it’s always been doing that. It’s never not been doing that, you see what I’m saying? It’s constantly planting itself with what came before and emerging as new interpretation with the same basic language and tools, incorporating the sound of today.

They’re here and they’re part of the whole canon, as they should be. Because it’s a constantly emerging canon.

TM: There’s a second part to my question. For example, The Guardian piece didn’t mention any women as a part of this “resurgence.” Why do you think they leave women out of this conversation?

 ES: I don’t think it’s intentional, honestly. Again, it comes back to “what does resurgence mean?” To me, it implies something that was not around, that had somehow gone dormant and then due to some new force, or some new phenomenon, it re-emerges. That’s not the truth of the story. It didn’t go anywhere. You go anywhere in the world, there are dedicated, dedicated, ground-breaking, exploratory musicians who love quote unquote “jazz music.” Some of them are men and some of them are women.

If you want to just speak about women in jazz music, maybe there aren’t a lot right now that have the commercial success of all the people you just mentioned. But it certainly doesn’t mean they aren’t part of the continual emergence of this music as an art form. The nature of it is transformation, the very nature is like I said before; taking what happened before and using that as a language, as a pedagogy, as a playbook and you practice it, and you explore it, and you use it to speak your voice. Which of course is informed by the era you grew up in, it’s informed by the music that you’ve experienced outside of quote unquote “jazz.”

It’s a long definition, but in a way that IS the very definition. Like I said again, I’m sorry, but commercial viability or commercial success or popularity is not a prerequisite for the continual emergence or transformation of the music as an art form.

I don’t think liking those musicians will necessarily bring you into the fold of jazz as a vernacular. I think you like those musicians, because they’re killing. If they weren’t’ called “jazz” you’d probably like them just as much.

TM: Speaking of female jazz musicians, you were part of an all-female project by drummer Terri Lyne Carrington called “ The Mosaic Project” in 2010. What was that experience like for you?

 ES: Just like any other recording session. It was Terri’s concept to put this band together, it didn’t matter that we were ladies, it doesn’t matter when it’s all men in the studio. She just wanted to play with people she’s played with over the years that were really, really bad and beautiful musicians; strong, creative, well-trained. Whatever is important to you, it’s important to her. She asked me to be the bass player on it and it was awesome. Her music is crazy; it’s really challenging, it’s really beautiful amazing record and I’m so glad to be a part of it.

I’m not a big advocate of creating women-only environments to play in. I’m a big advocate for making great shit with whom you find as the best candidate for that job. With the ACS Trio show for example, Geri Allen is one of my favorite piano players and Terri is one of my favorite drummers and we play together. If other people want to make a big fuss about us being women, that’s fine and dandy, but we are bad and we like to play together, we sound good together so we have that band.

TM: Let’s talk about the album,”Emily’s D+Evolution” which is amazing. I love the concept, which is about an alter-ego named Emily. What inspired you to create a concept album?

 ES: At the time that came I had no idea what was happening. I had no idea if it was going to be the record, I didn’t know it was going to be a project that lasted two years. I hit on a vein of inspiration and I kept digging. I could tell there was going to be a lot of richness there, I didn’t know what it would look like and I didn’t know how it was going to unfold of course, but I saw this character. I saw this Emily person and I got a sense of what she was going to talk about and how she was going to perform. It was really intriguing and it was scary. It seemed fun so I said “okay.” I took notes on what I was seeing and hearing and I dedicated myself to bringing this out to the world.

After the recording process was over and we had this record, I really started to look at how I could actually express that initial vision I saw. It was theatrical, I had to say. I didn’t know the terminology for that yet, but it was and it is, theatrical. The last two years has been a continuation of that process of figuring out what the hell this is. I knew it was important and I know it is important and I trusted this character, if I can say it like that. Writers probably say it like that when they’re working on a novel. You can’t explain why, but you know you need this character in this part of the story. Probably after hashing it out and hacking it out you understand what they create and what they do to balance the story out as a whole. I definitely am learning about what Emily does for me as an artist and what she does on the stage and to bring this project, this body of work to life.

TM: If someone comes to you on the street and asks you, “Who is Emily?“ what do you tell them?

 ES: Who is she? Well, first I would say, “well, she’s Emily!” She’s a character who comes through me that’s here to explore D + Evolution. She’s here to model it and embody it and challenge the people she meets to try it. She challenges the people she meets to pare down what doesn’t work and find a new way to put it back together.

TM: Is she supposed to be a younger character, a child-like character, or is she age-neutral?

 ES: It’s definitely age-neutral. We definitely tend to think of certain qualities as youth. So, maybe in that way she can be perceived as child-like, but it’s very grown-up stuff we’re talking about. Taking the responsibility to creatively manifest the world we want to live in. To me that’s not a child-like or childish pursuit at all. It takes me most courage and maturity to be willing to let go of what you’re attached to, maybe and methods, ideologies and even identities you can make-do in. I think it takes a lot of courage to trust that you can actually be fresh today, what you wish to be. And you can start building fresh today, all the tools are right here, even if you have to breakdown a bookshelf. You can re-build it just with those materials if you are creatively willing to be + Evolved.

There’s something really valuable in that can often get overlooked and even sometimes shunned. If your only measure of a person’s worth is their intellectual capacity.

TM: Speaking of books and bookshelves, your song “Ebony and Ivy” shares the same title as a book by Craig Steven Wilder. Was it inspired by the book which deals with racism and higher education?

 ES: I didn’t know about the book before I wrote it, I was actually really surprised now speaking about it. “Wow, what! That’s crazy, that’s what the song is about!” Well, his book was about the beginning, now the theme fits really nicely into what I was picking up on which is this idea of… the master’s toolset will never break down the house of masters. I, and you, and a lot of people we know buy into the idea that our intellectual worth is measured by someone else’s institution.

I think there’s a big sacrifice that is made by a person, by a culture, by an individual when they won’t allow their own mode of interacting with the world to take precedence because I feel like it goes against the character, the identity, the ideology or the teachings of a broader institution who, at least right now, your academic worth is so much about your intellectual worth. I disagree with that phenomenon. And what I’ve observed in myself and my friends is often really hard for them. I want to improve my livelihood; I want to expand my mind; I want to get a degree; I want to get my masters; I want to get in a good school.

But when you ask them “Why do you want to do that?” There’s the common answers are to make a better living, or to have better opportunities or to expand my mind, but if you keep getting down to the “Why” people don’t really know. It might be simply because I don’t want to seem like some dumb nigger. That’s a concept that was placed in our mind at the base level of how we value or own self-worth. We’re still doing it according to somebody else’s laws and parameters, and I think we, all of us. I don’t mean just black people or just poor people, or uneducated people. We have a lot going on and we learn a lot from living on this planet, living with each other and just feeling okay about being here. That’s the line about “art of low class feeling.” There’s something really valuable in that can often get overlooked and even sometimes shunned. If your only measure of a person’s worth is their intellectual capacity.

Since you’re thinking of Ebony and Ivy, which relates directly to the phenomenon of Ivy League schools, funding themselves and building themselves off of slave money. So, of course, the ideologies they were expounding was basically justifying the slave trade and the existing of slavery in the United States. That’s not what my song is about, but it would certainly highlight – you gotta wonder when you’re striving to become something, striving to become an intellectual or an academic, how can you sift through the processes of identity built to make you look like an inferior identity.

TM: You worked with Prince, what was it like working with him and what is your favorite album or song?

 ES: It was like looking at stars through a telescope and studying the qualities and imagining where they come from and admiring their brilliance and their beauty. Then waking up and seeing the sun.

He is a, was a, artistic, creative force like no other. The brilliance was unparallel to anything remotely nearby in the artistic universe. Favorite album or song? It’s hard to say. I am not good with the names because they are all on my iTunes and I just see the picture and click on it. I like the one that has a blue background, and he doesn’t have a shirt on and his hair is like pressed and parted in the middle with a little flip on the ends. That’s one of my favorite records.

TM: What is the last book you read?

 ES: I just read “The Devil Finds Work” by James Baldwin. Why did I like it? Because he activates in me.  I think he activates in his readers; I feel like that’s part of the intention. He helps you look at the world around you and think about it critically. It doesn’t feel preachy, it feels like an invitation to explore a subject with him and ask the hard questions.

You should read it, it’s really deep. Actually, what I took away from it is the reflections of ourselves that we take without question, that are sold to us in movies and entertainment – he’s thinking about the films he’s seen growing up, but I know that still happens to us today. It’s so easy to forget and just roll your eye at a moment in a film that is a little degrading and a little stereotypical and I don’t just mean about black people, I mean about any people.

He really forces us to focus on that and really ask why do we accept this? Where and how did this mode of portraying people become okay. What is it contributing to our narrative of American people on the whole? When a story has true depth and revelation about the human experience, let’s say a book or a movie, he talks about the parts cut out for American audiences and why. It’s very enlightening.

TM: What did your childhood smell like?

 ES: It smelled like grass and trees.

Director of Digital | Radio Milwaukee