Esperanza Spalding: When NPR is Not Enough

Esperanza Spalding. Photo by Zack Smith.

Esperanza Spalding. Photo by Zack Smith.

It was in July 2007, while at the Montreal Jazz Festival, that Esperanza Spalding bought her first electric bass. What surprised her was not so much the sound it provided but the mobility.

“The acoustic bass is a stationary instrument,” she says. “When I picked up an electric, I could suddenly move about the stage. I became a different character. I started dancing around.”

Spalding is a virtuoso on the upright bass, which she has been playing for 12 years, since she was 15. Whether leading her own band or performing in saxophonist Joe Lovano’s groups, she cuts a striking figure on stage: a tall, skinny woman topped by a huge, spherical Afro, standing next to a wooden instrument the size and shape of a rowboat. More striking still is the sound she gets from the instrument: a deep, full-bodied tone that nonetheless skips gracefully across intervals like a singer.

She still considers herself a neophyte on the electric, but as soon as she started learning the new instrument—with its shorter strings, guitar-like right hand and very different sonic textures—she began playing Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire songs. This reminded her of her Oregon childhood pushing buttons on her mom’s car radio, and that led to her new album, Radio Music Society.

It’s not a pop album or even an R&B project; it’s a jazz album that explores how improvisational music can fruitfully borrow from radio music and thus find a way to compete on the airwaves. She is joined in that quest by such major jazz figures as Lovano, guitarists Jef Lee Johnson and Lionel Loueke, and drummers Terri Lyne Carrington, Jack DeJohnette and Billy Hart.

“Everyone on the record came into the studio with the same inspiration: to put our music on the radio,” she says emphatically. “By ‘our music,’ I mean jazz, our common experience, our way of working, our way of thinking. There’s a lot of music that doesn’t get on the airwaves because the format is so locked down. It’s not because listeners have such narrow tastes; it’s because, out of the many great kinds of music this country has produced, only a thin slice makes it onto the radio.”

The album’s lead-off track is “Radio Song,” which begins with seductive, soprano “la-la-las” over a muscular electric bass track. But when she starts singing, “Traffic won’t speed up, so you turn the radio on,” Spalding’s melody doesn’t fall on the expected triad notes but on the unexpected notes you usually don’t hear on rush- hour radio. The tune is appealing but slightly askew and soon the groove has shifted off-center as well.

It’s as if Spalding—like Joni Mitchell, Annie Ross and the Manhattan Transfer before her—is trying to find the sweet spot where she can lure average listeners out of old habits and into new adventures without losing them entirely. When Daniel Blake blows a tenor sax solo over Spalding’s here-there-and-everywhere bass line, it’s not unlike Wayne Shorter’s solo on Steely Dan’s “Aja.” Later on the album, Blake plays on Shorter’s instrumental composition, “Endangered Species,” which has been given new lyrics by Spalding.

“I get asked all the time, ‘Don’t you think jazz is elitist and not accessible to ordinary people?’” Spalding says. “That was the genesis of Radio Music Society, to see if we can get this music out to the public on the radio.” She stops, laughs to herself and adds, “But, as you may have noticed, almost every song on the album is too long for the radio because I couldn’t resist following the ideas wherever they went.”

The lyrics for “Radio Song” describe that familiar experience of scanning the dial for a new discovery. Often, she sings, “it’s the same old stuff that just makes you yawn,” but every once in a while you hear a tune for the first time and suddenly, “Your skin starts bristling. The words are speaking to you as if they knew you— this song’s the one.” She accents the first line with an actual yawn and the second with a giddy yelp.

“When you turn the radio on and start scanning the dial,” she elaborates in a phone call, “you step out of your comfort zone. You get away from what you already know. There’s always a possibility that you might experience something that’s meaningful to you, that has a positive effect on you. If all forms of music were presented with the same access to radio, listeners might find they like something that they didn’t know they liked. That’s the great thing radio offers, that you can scan across it and hear so many different things.”

By this she doesn’t only mean that pop fans might discover some jazz that they like; she also means that jazz fans might discover some pop that they like—or that pop and jazz fans alike might be surprised by a country song or a classical piece. That was certainly her experience as a teenager, when she was already working jazz gigs in her hometown of Portland.

“When I started driving,” she remembers, “I liked the radio a lot. It’s like a library where the librarian brings you the books. I remember hearing some Tori Amos songs, and I couldn’t believe songs like that were on the radio. When I heard Stevie Wonder for the first time, I went, ‘Whoa, what a voice.’ I heard Des’ree and Sisters with Voices on the R&B station, Harry Belafonte on the oldies station, and U2 on the rock station. When I heard George Walker’s trombone concerto on public radio, I was so moved I had to pull over.”


If Spalding is fascinated by how jazz interacts with pop radio, she’s just as interested in how jazz encounters classical music. In fact, Radio Music Society was originally conceived as part of a two-CD set with Chamber Music Society, which combined Spalding’s jazz quartet with a classical string trio. She began recording the radio half of the set first but felt she wanted to work with the electric bass more before she finished it. So she shifted her focus to the string trio and released Chamber Music Society as a stand-alone album in 2010.

If Radio Music Society, released as a stand-alone album last month, explores the sweaty, southern boundary between jazz and pop, Chamber Music Society investigated the more austere, northern border between jazz and classical. After all, Spalding had first been drawn into music at age four while watching cellist Yo-Yo Ma on TV’s Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. She picked up the violin and within a year was playing with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon, a local amateur orchestra. Even after she made the bass her main instrument and jazz her main interest at age 15, she never lost her fascination with European art music.

“I saw a lot of similarities between the way I breathed and thought while playing violin in a string quartet and the way I played bass in a jazz trio,” she says. “Out of curiosity, I started writing music for a string quartet with a rhythm section. I was exploring this idea of a crossroads where the small ensemble in the jazz realm interprets music in a very similar way to the small ensemble in the classical world.”

The album further refined the approach she had introduced on her previous release, 2008’s Esperanza, of singing while playing the bass. It wasn’t as if she were simply singing a tune over accompaniment; her voice and her bass were producing robust but independent, often counterpointed lines that fit together to create a larger picture. It was as if she had become a piano—the right-hand part coming out through her throat and the left-hand part coming out through her string-plucking fingers.

Sometimes she sang scat syllables; sometimes she sang actual lyrics. On Chamber Music Society, she wrote most of the lyrics herself but also sang the words of Hollywood songwriter Ned Washington, Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Brazilian partner Aloysio de Oliveria, and British poet William Blake. Her high, girlish soprano wasn’t overpowering, but like Minnie Riperton’s or Natalie Merchant’s, it had an enchanting purity. It proved so mesmerizing that Spalding pulled off one of the greatest upsets in Grammy history.

On February 13, 2011, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the envelope for Best New Artist—not Best New Jazz Artist, but Best New Artist overall—was ripped open and Spalding’s name was announced. She had beaten out teen faves Drake and Justin Bieber as well as British imports Mumford and Sons and Florence + the Machine. That didn’t mean she had won a majority of the votes, merely a plurality. The totals are never disclosed, but if, for example, she had won 21 percent of the votes, while Drake, Bieber and the Mumfords had each won 20 percent and Florence Welch had won 19 percent, Spalding would still be the winner.

No matter. Her victory triggered great exultation in jazz circles and utter outrage in the teen blogosphere, where the oft-repeated question was, “What’s an Esperanza Spalding?” The world soon found out, as the charming, photogenic bassist was soon showing up on lots of TV shows. At every stop, she encouraged viewers to check out her colleagues in the jazz sphere. To help them cross the gap between pop and jazz, she decided to build a bridge. That was Radio Music Society.


“I began to see a pattern that some of my music was more introspective,” she says, “and some was more extroverted. On Chamber Music Society, we were asking people to come over and look in on what we’re doing. Radio Music Society is the opposite. We are blasting out what we are doing to the whole world through radio. Instead of inviting people in to check us out, we were going to them with a more extroverted music.”

Prince invited her to open some shows for him on the West Coast last summer, four months after the Grammy win, to showcase Chamber Music Society. But she decided that such intimate music wouldn’t work at the Felt Forum, so she previewed music from Radio Music Society instead. Backed by Terri Lyne Carrington, Jef Lee Johnson, keyboardist Raymond Angry and her longtime mentor Joe Lovano, Spalding unveiled her new arrangement of Michael Jackson’s Stevie Wonder-penned “I Can’t Help It.”

“I was playing with Joe at a jazz festival in Italy once,” Spalding says, “and we were listening to someone else play an uninspired version of ‘Stella by Starlight.’ Joe leaned over to me and said, ‘Boy, when you do a classic, you can’t just do it the way it’s been done. You have to find your own reason for doing it.’ I had always liked that Stevie Wonder song, but I couldn’t find my own reason for singing it until I heard my friend Gretchen Parlato do a very pared-down version of it. I began to hear things in the song that I’d never heard before. I started playing that bass line, and the whole arrangement grew out of that.”

Spalding first met Lovano in the fall of 2003, during her second year at the Berklee School of Music. She was playing bass in his ensemble class and found his teaching style reminiscent of his playing style, spontaneous and flowing. If people asked a question, she says, he’d lead them back to their own question so they could answer it for themselves.

“There are some teachers who have an itemized list of what they want to cover in each class and each semester,” Spalding says. “Joe’s more likely to answer a question by playing an example. The lesson grows out of the playing; the playing doesn’t grow out of the lesson. He’d say, ‘Follow the lines; don’t be afraid to take your time and follow the lines. Breathe through the music and you’ll find the form.’ This may seem very esoteric if you’re not used to the way he plays, but he’s always in the moment waiting to see what develops. When we play, you can hear him absorbing all the music around him, and it instantly comes out in the lines he plays.”

“Even when I first met her, Esperanza was very creative,” Lovano says, “able to memorize the music quickly, and soon she was able to contribute to the music we were making and not just play her part. I liked her playing so much that when she graduated, we started playing some gigs together around Boston.”

Those early gigs led to a place for Spalding in the Us Five, Lovano’s primary vehicle in recent years. One of the many interesting aspects of this two-drummer quintet is its generational spread between the baby-boomers Lovano and pianist James Weidman and the 27-year- old Spalding with the drummers Francisco Mela and Otis Brown III in the middle. This was a deliberate strategy on Lovano’s part.

“Esperanza, Mela and Otis have all studied their instruments and know the music,” he says, “but in terms of being on the bandstand and creating new music, they’re at the beginning of their journey. That’s fabulous because music is all about that journey. A lot of musicians only play with their own peer group for their whole career. When you play in mixed-generation situations, you’re in tune with all aspects of the scene.”

“When you grow up with a certain age group,” Spalding adds, “you can tell that they grew up with the same kind of music. When I play with people who are in their 20s, I can tell that we all listened to the same things and respond in the same ways. If I play this lick, someone will play that lick. That can be frustrating because it’s predictable, so it’s refreshing to play with people in their 50s, because they listened to different things growing up and they can take you to new places.”

You can hear what she means on the version of Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It” that appears on Radio Music Society. The fat funk on Spalding’s electric bass comes right out of Wonder’s peak years in the ‘70s, but Lyndon Rochelle’s drumming is a jazz interpretation of dance and hip-hop beats from the ‘90s, while Lovano echoes the fluid harmonizing of Sonny Rollins and Johnny Griffin in the ‘50s. By combining all these elements, Spalding gives it a shot at getting heard on the radio in 2012.


Esperanza Spalding plays Jazz Fest on Thursday, May 3 at 5:25 p.m. on the Congo Square Stage.