Practically the hottest all singing all bass playing talent on the planet right now Esperanza Spalding broke through with a best selling, Grammy Award-winning album in 2011, Chamber Music Society, which she followed with funk-fuelled follow up, Radio Music, I spoke to her to find out more.
When it comes to winning awards grabbing the Grammy for ‘Best Album’ marks a pinnacle in any artist’s critical approval ratings checklist. Yet for bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding her headline making win in 2011 for Chamber Music Society, a subtle, harmonically rich album that trumped the pop/folk/indie bluster of Justin Bieber, Mumford And Sons and Arcade Fire, proved to be just the start of her recent rise to the top of the critical tree. Indeed Downbeat magazine’s prestigious Readers Poll has seen her come out on top as ‘Jazz Artist Of The Year, the first time it’s been awarded to a woman in its 59-year history (which perhaps says more about jazz than her singular talents), Spalding has been voted ‘Jazz Artist Of The Year’ in the Boston Music Awards, is included in the Chicago Tribune’s Top Ten Live Shows of the year alongside McCoy Tyner and Tony Bennett, while Chamber Music was Billboard’s biggest selling jazz album of the year.
Yet Chamber Music was always a two-part story with its far more extroverted cousin Radio Music Society set for release in early 2012, it features the flip side to Spalding’s more introverted, intellectual outpourings on the first instalment. So while Chamber Music added classical flourishes and lush harmonic textures to the traditional jazz piano, bass, drums trio, Radio Music digs deep into funk, soul, blues, and big band sounds, with Spalding’s multi-tracked voice expanding the harmonic layers over some seriously slinky grooves. But the big difference here sonically is Esperanza hits the ground running on her Fender Jazz bass guitar, playing it almost exclusively throughout the album. The results are nothing short of inspiring as she steers her stellar band through some tricky time feels, and off-kilter counterpoint hooks, demonstrating that at heart she’s a solid team player who knows that laying a steading foundation is the key to any great song.
Speaking to Esperanza over the phone from her apartment in New York it seemed only right to start by asking how her Grammy win had affected her life and music over the last year? “Honestly it doesn’t manifest itself in my life so, so, so much – it’s something that happened,” she says casually but sincerely. “In a sense you feel really grateful that that many people were thinking of you, that’s how I see it. Like wow, that many people in the music world were thinking of me and it’s such a warm, yummy feeling to feel that much support, but day to life is the same as it ever was… like the Talking Heads song,” she breaks into a David Byrne impression singing ‘Same as it ever was…’, then continues, “you know it’s a lot of practicing and travelling and band leading, all the good stuff.”
Yet when we last spoke about Chamber Music Society and her plans for this funk-edged follow up project one of the key elements of this new set was to bring many of the characteristics of jazz to a mainstream audience – like those of improvisation and extended arrangements and harmonies. Indeed the resulting album that is Radio Music does incorporate many of these things but overall feels a lot more tightly controlled and slickly produced, was this the way she intended the album to sound? “Well yes and no.” she says frankly, before elaborating, “I knew the songs already, I mean ‘knew’,” she says laughing to herself, “the sketches of the songs were already done and I’d even been playing them live and I knew what the record title was going to be for sure, I knew the songs the titles and the song content. But I thought originally I was going to arrange them so that you’d hear much more of the jazz roots of all the players who are actually on the record – because whatever you hear everyone on the is a jazz player. But I thought that aspect of their musicianship would be much more prevalent in terms of the way they’d be playing, and solos and having really open comping sections and open solo sections. And the more I started working with the songs and arranging them, and I think the proof of the pudding with these songs was when I started actually writing out the charts – most of my songs live in sketches on paper – so the process of actually writing out the charts and thereby writing out the arrangement was when the songs really started to take the shape of what they are on the record. And in the process of hashing out the songs I realised they’re much simpler. In my mind I was imaging all kinds of crazy things, but when I arranged them I realised they were just singer songwriter songs… which is really like Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters, where they are playing these tunes that have this really straightforward singer songwriter – I mean I don’t know what that genre means anymore, but I guess I’m using it – and all of our language, all of our [jazz] foundation is implied by the way we play these songs and there are moments where it’ll bubble up to the surface but at others it’ll be more subterraneous but that approach to playing harmony, to playing rhythm that we all live with will shine through the format or these songs. It’s hard to explain.”
It might be hard to explain the avalanche of creative thoughts that seem to be constantly tumbling through Spalding’s effervescent imagination yet Radio Music often dazzles with its many splendored songs. Indeed the opening ‘Radio Song’ is about as an emphatic statement of intent as you could wish for with its sumptuous layers of vocals, undulating Latin funk bass line, counterpoint vocal and horn lines, not to mention a killer chorus that is sure to be blasting from FM Radio stations worldwide on release. In many ways a summation of all that the album stands for she’s insistent that this is one of the album’s more accessible moments; “Yeah and the song it opens with is one of the more… I mean there’s a lot of crazy stuff going on but that’s because there are so many things…” she laughs self consciously, “that I wanted to cram in there – that will probably be the downfall, if there is a downfall, is that I tried to cram too much stuff in every song.” It’s a refreshingly honest self-assessment though her critical frame of reference is typically esoteric; “I guess I figured that if there’s enough stuff from the outer realms, if you want to use the old analogy of what the cosmos used to be – the seven spheres – it’s the outer sphere that impacts you first and that’s something that’s simple and catchy enough but if you listen to it more than one time I like the idea that every time you hear it you discover something more. And ‘Radio Song’ is one of the simpler songs on the record.”
Of all the great voice and bass partnerships in the last century of jazz and pop that magical pairing of Joni Mitchell and Jaco Pastorius is certainly up there with the very best, and it’s one that at times is recalled on Radio Music, most certainly on the big city sounds of ‘Radio Music’, yet it’s not something Spalding herself had contemplated. She sounds shocked at the suggestion; “No shit, wow, of course I listened to those [Jaco and Joni] albums, I don’t agree with you but I guess my ego will store that compliment somewhere – shoot yeah, there’s one place I did that where I was thinking about Jaco and Joni and that’s in the bridge of Radio Song, that’s exactly where I was thinking of them – what else can I say they are in our hearts you know? I think of them and their music often, I’m not actually as into Joni Mitchell as I want to be and after [I finished] the record I really started listening more to Weather Report and I had never been into Joe Zawinul’s stuff, like some of the stuff he did without Jaco, with Salif Keita and the album My People.”
If there’s one defining element of Radio Music Society it’s the way Spalding deploys the bass as a core around which all other elements orbit, something that she admits was her primary compositional device here. But behind the PR about this being a ‘celebration of the power of song’ it’s in fact Spalding’s highly attuned bass lines that exert the greatest pull throughout the record. So on that note are there any great bass lines she loves to play? “I just love the bass line in ‘Boogie On Reggae Woman’ by Stevie Wonder,” she explains without hesitation, “that’s synth bass I believe? But yeah every time I play it on my bass I’m bound to go there… and I learned a lot of bass lines on George Duke’s funk stuff because I had to learn a bunch of the music to sub for a bass player earlier this year and just getting those under my fingers has been really fun. This record – like I was saying earlier – the decisions we make are intuitive and a lot of what musicians are doing is creating a space for themselves to explore and expand, this project is my space to explore and expand electric bass, otherwise I wouldn’t have time to practice. And until this record I didn’t have time to practice electric bass like I wanted to. So now with this new record of course it’s going to change and expand for the live setting, like you saw Chamber Music did, but this is really a chance for me to really dig into electric bass now, that’s going to be my focus. Obviously I’ll keep playing acoustic bass too, but the premise of the record was like ‘OK, I need to practice electric now, I’m ready to play now…’ So I’ve been writing these songs, that are relatively simple but you’ve got to start somewhere,” she laughs again modestly.
Being a relative newcomer to bass guitar Spalding’s current gear set up is pretty straight forward, as she uses a fretless Fender Jazz strung with flatwounds, she elaborates enthusiastically, “Yeah, I’m just playing a Mexican made Jazz bass, a four string, going into an Aguilar amp, nothing fancy… I like the tone. I’m looking forward to branching out and finding some other sounds but I like working within limits, not that that is a limited instrument but I’ve been really digging just being at home with the amp just tweaking and finding different timbres, different attacks there’s a lot you can do… with anything actually it’s just a matter of finding what you want to hear.”
What’s most striking on Radio Music too is the fact there are very few bass fills, let alone solos, a refreshingly understated approach compared to the usual blizzard of techniques that often get shoehorned into most ‘bass’ albums. Spalding is happy to flex her musical muscles through great compositions but is quick not to be written off as lacking in technique either; “Yeah, that flashy stuff will come with time and when it’s contextually appropriate, I mean virtuosity is important and it’s something we all strive for, but it just comes with time. In my life I don’t know if it’s because I can’t (laughs) up to this point in my life flashiness has never been a priority. I just want to impact people from a place of love and joy and good songs and I think I have the rest of my life to get my chops together by getting better and better and one day if there’s a playing situation where it seems like flashiness is the word of the day I’ll do my best to fulfil that function, in the meantime.” She says laughing again.
Thus Radio Music Society reflects the furthering of Spalding’s musical vision that while encompassing so many facets of contemporary music making, and features some top notch playing, is fuelled by a deep rooted concept that goes way beyond taking great bass playing to the masses. While she’s happy people have an increased awareness of the instrument thanks to her effortless abilities on both acoustic and electric bass, it’s still just a means to a musical end, as she explained, “Yes, but it’s like Stanley Clarke once said that he wants to take out a billboard by the highway saying ‘alright, the bass has been liberated already!’ I didn’t intend to [take bass playing to the mainstream] that wasn’t necessarily the intention it was to get the songs played in whatever way that best portrays the sound and the writing of the story whatever – but the driving force from a composition stand point was ‘OK what does this really want to be?’ and ‘Can I find it?’ and most of the time the answer was I can find it and here it is! That was the motivating factor, it wasn’t something simple like I’m going to take it back to the good old days and play a simple bass line – that wasn’t the intention – I wish I was that hip…”