She’s High Strung

Written by Ernest Barteldes on . Posted in Posts.


On her self-titled major-label debut, Esperanza Spalding demonstrates that she is an artist who keeps an open mind, avoiding the trappings of niche genres. She skillfully takes on a diverse array of styles ranging from samba, Latin, hard-driving jazz and R&B.

Such eclecticism probably wouldn’t work in less confident hands, but Spalding revels in these multiple directions without sounding pretentious. She is a talented singer, bassist and tunesmith willing to take risks and explore different influences as a tool to explore her creativity. She has undeniable talent that might quickly include her among names like Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller—we’ll have to just wait and see. The Press caught up with her as she wrapped a European tour, and talked about her early career, the music that inspired her and also her upcoming New York concerts.

In addition to playing bass, you are also a singer—how did you find your voice, and how does that interact with your bass playing?

The bass and voice interaction are starting to feel more and more like two extensions of one instrument…I hardly think of them as separate when I am playing my own music. And, the voice came into my playing when I needed to start learning standards for gigs. I would go to my friend’s house, and he would teach me by ear the melodies and root movement of songs.

Once I had memorized the melodies and bass notes, it was much easier to remember the tunes. From practicing like this, I was proficient enough to sing and play in a pop band that hired me first as a bassist and then later as a lead singer. And with this band did I really start developing the concept of singing and playing in a performance setting.

On your debut, you sing in English, Spanish and Portuguese. How did you become interested in international music?

At the beginning of my life as a bassist, lots of different friends and fellow musicians would make me mixed tapes and mixed CDs to I could check out what they were into. Through this I heard my first taste of Brazilian music.Then, I followed my love of the sound, and kept asking for more music in that vein.The more people I met with different collections, the more I heard and learned and came to love.

Not many young musicians get to be encouraged by Pat Metheny while also getting to tour with Joe Lovano. What do you attribute your early success to?

Partly being in the right place at the right time and trying to foresee what I could do to prepare for each encounter that I had access to. But, maybe the real thing is [that] all great masterful musicians want to share the knowledge with up-and-coming musicians. I suppose they saw in me potential…coupled with a willingness to do the work necessary to achieve as much of that potential as possible.

I have always thought that Jazz Standard is a unique venue. It’s not a tourist attraction but has a big enough name in the scene. How do you plan to approach your gigs there?

It is always nice to come home and play for friends and family. So, I know I am gonna feel warm and comfy. I plan to approach it musically the same I would anywhere: Prepare a set that best fits the energy I feel from the room and rock the house! You are right; Jazz Standard is a very special place. [It has] a perfect balance of people who just dropped by out of curiosity of the venue, so they are open to whatever, and people who have come specifically come to check out the band. But I like playing for people who don’t know what to expect. It’s like getting an uncontaminated reading of how your music affects audiences. I am really looking forward to these shows.

> Esperanza Spalding

Feb. 12 through Feb. 15, Jazz Standard, 116 E. 27th St. (betw. Park & Lexington Aves.), 212-576-2232; 7:30 & 9:30, $25-$30.

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Below is the full transcript of the interview. 

I saw that at first you played the violin. How was the transition from that to the double bass?

Well, the transition wasn’t direct. Since I didn’t really assume I would become a serious bassist, I would just fiddle (no pun intended;) around with the bass on days I didn’t have anything else to do in school. But, the theory and basic reading skills I had acquired during my years as a violinist was very helpful as I started studying bass.

In addition to playing bass, you are also a singer—how did you find your voice, and how does that interact with your bass playing?

The bass and voice interaction are starting to feel more and more like two extensions of one instrument…I hardly think of them as separate when I am playing my own music. And, the voice came into my playing when I needed to start learning standards for gigs. I would go to my friend’s house and he would teach me by ear the melodies and root movement of songs. Once I had memorized the melodies and bass notes, it was much easier to remember the tunes. From practicing like this, I was proficient enough to sing and play in a pop band that hired me first as a bassist and then later as a lead singer. And with this band did I really start developing the concept of singing and playing in a performance setting.

On your debut, you sing in English, Spanish and Portuguese. How did you become interested in international music?

At the beginning of my life as a bassist, lots of different friends and fellow musicians would make me mixed tapes and mixed CDs to I could check out what they were into. Through this I heard my first taste of Brazilian music. Then, I followed my love of the sound, and kept asking for more music in that vein. The more people I met with different

Do you actually speak those languages?

Yes! I am not 100% fluent by a long shot. But, I do speak Spanish and Portuguese.

Not many young musicians get to be encouraged by Pat Metheny while also getting to tour with Joe Lovano. What do you attribute your early success to?

Partly being in the right place at the right time and trying to foresee what I could do to prepare for each encounter that I had access to. But, maybe the real thing is [that] all great masterful musicians want to share the knowledge with up-and-coming musicians. I suppose they saw in me potential…coupled with a willingness to do the work necessary to achieve as much of that potential as possible

How was it to become part of the faculty at Berklee before the age of 25?

The president invited me to join the faculty. And, I suppose he thought that having a person who is current and involved in the professional scene, actively in the process of building a career, would be a good resource for the students.

You’ve been touring extensively—how have audiences received you? Are there difference between stages in New York, Florida and Europe?

There are many differences between every audience of course, but it is never a consistent pattern. And, the disposition of an audience in one city can even change between different performances in the same venue. Often, I think our energy from the stage is the most influential element as in terms of how an audience will react. In the past I have blamed audiences for being un-enthusiastic or "sucking my energy", but that is a very self centered, and dismissive view. We have a responsibility to give the people a good show, and a good time. I notice when my focus changes to inviting their energy and enthusiasm out and into the club, we never feel like we are playing for a dead room.

I have always thought that Jazz Standard is a unique venue. It’s not a tourist attraction but has a big enough name in the scene. How do you plan to approach your gigs there?

It is always nice to come home and pay for friends and family. So, I know I am gonna feel warm and comfy. I plan to approach it musically the same I would anywhere: Prepare a set that best fits the energy I feel from the room and rock the house!
You are right; Jazz Standard is a very special place. [It has] a perfect balance of people who just dropped by out of curiosity of the venue, so they are open to whatever, and people who have come specifically come to check out the band. But I like playing for people who don’t know what to expect. It’s like getting an uncontaminated reading of how your music affects audiences. I am really looking forward to these shows.

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