INTERVIEW: Esperanza Spalding


[UPDATE: Show rescheduled at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on 04/12]

Esperanza Spalding was scheduled to come to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on Feb. 9 as a part of the museum’s RISE concert series. The series is meant to highlight up-and-coming artists. Unfortunately, the Boston snow caused the show to be cancelled, but WTBU DJ Matt Garamella was able to interview Spalding about her new album, creative process and inspirations.

Matt Garamella: You have a concert coming up at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on Feb. 9. How does it feel to be coming back to Boston, one of the places where you both learned and taught music?

Esperanza Spalding: Yeah! I am coming to participate in this event that the museum is putting on. I should just be clear that this is not my concert. I’ll be accompanying Ysaye Barnwell and she’ll be accompanying me for a few excerpts from my repertoire, but it’s sort of a special combo collaborative evening.

MG: That’s very exciting. While you were at Boston, were there any professors or artists that inspired you or your work?

ES: Of course! I mean first of all, it was the students, you know. I had never been around that many people from that many places. So to me, the richest part of being in Boston was connecting with the international students and the students from around the country. I started to learn about South American music and European music, Eastern European music, Middle Eastern music, African music, elements of American music, North American music that I hadn’t been in touch with. I would say that was the most formative aspect of my time at Boston, but the teachers that come to mind and really stood out where John Lockwood, Hal Crook, and my counterpoint teacher, whose name is escaping me. I remember my counterpoint two class really gave me the confidence to –oh! And Rick Peckham, oh my gosh, I had a great time playing with and working with him. But my counterpoint two teacher…something about that class really revealed the truth that all theory comes after the music. He really gave his students the confidence to trust our ears and instinct in music and show that’s how all the theory and the logic in the pedagogy that developed simply to make sense out of what works, and what’s beautiful, and what’s resonant. And of course Leo Genovese in Boston; he’s been an ally and friend, and partner, and teacher, and collaborator for the last almost 15 years.

MG: Wow! So, I’d like to talk now a little bit about your recent album, Emily’s Devolution

ES: D-plus-evolution.

MG: I’m sorry—D+evolution. Could you explain the meaning of the album’s title?

ES: Sure! So, D+Evolution is a phenomenon that I think is a more accurate description of both progress and transformation than devolution or evolution. I think I have experienced the two forces; the two directions of growth happening simultaneously, always. One structure has to be broken down, or repurposed, or reimagined, to build up a new structure. And I think often when we’re in kind of the rut of deconstruction or devolution—when we feel we are stepping backwards, or things that happen all the time that we want or progress that we’ve made—we’re in the two-steps-backward phase. That’s an integral part of growth, and in that, if we can look at the devolution or deconstruction, or even destruction as holding the seeds of evolution and reconstruction. I think we used all these ingredients, all the parts, all the phases of growth in that change. So, for me, that’s what D+evolution means and Emily was a character—a being—that came through me to introduce me to that idea; introduced me to that phenomenon as it relates to love, or religion, or to economic structures, or family structures. Or even your desires, your sexuality, or whatever. So, that’s what Emily’s D+evolution means.

MG: So, do you feel this evolution, or devolution is centric to the United States, or more of a global kind of context?

ES: Oh, I just mean it’s like the way that growth is inherent in everything, or change. Even in rock. Rock is undergoing a very slow and imperceptible change constantly—everything is. So, I’m not speaking to any specific institution or entity or nation. I’m just speaking to the phenomenon of evolution as a phenomenon. It doesn’t have to be about the biological sense in reference to species. So, D+evolution, sure, it could be speaking to our country, or our culture, or our society, or our family, or global politics, or the environment, or travel, but for me, it’s very personal. I got in touch with the phenomenon in a personal way and I started to see how it was present and other phenomenon outside of my own personal trip, you know. But I had to get in touch with it first in order to perceive it elsewhere.

MG: Just to go on a little bit more about this album, could you tell me about your creative process?

ES: Yeah! I knew in one night that I was going to embody a character named Emily and I was going to write songs as her or through her and that I was going to perform as her and that it was going to be its own thing energetically, sonically, aesthetically. That happened on the night of Oct. 17 or 18. And there was no math involved; I wasn’t formulating how I was going to do it. It was just like, ‘oh shit!, this is what I’m going to do—let’s do this!” I just saw really clearly, and I was hearing the sound and the aesthetic. But then, once that original insight hit, I spent the next two years packaging that. So, some of that happened writing in my house—my family’s house in Oregon—some of it happened in my apartment in New York, some of it happened in rehearsals with the band on the record, and honestly, a lot of the creative development of the project happened once we had started trying it and performing it live. Because so much of what this project was about was breaking open, you know, breaking down the structures I had gotten accustomed to as a performer, as a musician, as a woman, and exploring what else there is in me, and on the stage, and what else is possible connecting with my collaborators, and etc. So, a lot of the creative change, the creative work, happened post album release—watching videos of the performances, taking inventory of what happened night-to-night, how the audience reacted, how I reacted, clarity of narrative, clarity of song, blah blah blah. So it was kind of like all in all, a three-year creative process. Kind of inception to what I laid the project to rest and let it diffuse back out into the ether at the end of my (inaudible).

MG: Ah, and do you ever seek any inspiration outside of music for your work?

ES: Of course! I rarely seek inspiration inside of music. I don’t really seek inspiration, it’s coming, it’s happening, it’s all the time. It’s coming in, of course, from everywhere, from everything, from this conversation too. It’s like breathing, you know? Stuff is always coming in, stuff is always coming out, so there are so many realms of expressions; of art, of performance, of sound, of language, of imagery that were pouring in, I suppose.

MG: Do you feel that women in jazz get treated differently than men in jazz?

ES: Of course, women get treated differently everywhere, you know that. I don’t think there is any realm—I don’t think there is any place. Men get treated differently than women. So there are so many qualitative differences: energetic… yeah, I guess the reason I said it like that was because I don’t know, really, what it’s like to feel like a man in music. I have no idea. But I have had a really pleasant experience, I can say that… in music. And everything that I run into as a woman is the same kind of shit I run into as a woman everywhere else, so I don’t have an kind of particular feelings about my femininity, or sexuality, or whatever within jazz that aren’t exactly the same as they are in every other aspect of my life.

MG: In the past, you’ve included social messages in your music. Do you feel that it’s really important for artists to make social and political statements in their work?

ES: If it’s important to them, yes. If it’s not important to them, no. Because then it’s just— well I don’t want to say annoying, but what’s important in your work has to do with what’s important to you. Speak about what you mean and be yourself. If you’re grappling with a social issue that you want to explore in your sound, in your songs, in your lyrics, do it. But if you don’t have other things to say (inaudible). I mean, it’s like it’s not helpful for a doctor to give you a diagnosis if they don’t: A) care about your health, or B) really know what they’re talking about. But if you’re curious about medicine, and you’d like to get into that field, go for it! You know what I mean? Music is such a powerful medium; it really can penetrate people’s neurological systems, heat and spirit, as you know. So, I don’t think anybody should ever feel forced to talk about something that they don’t really, really believe, or really, really feel connected to. But if you’re somebody who is on the fence about speaking to what matters to you, and you feel strongly about it and it’s aching your heart or your mind, you’re angry. Protest in your music because it’s kind of our job; that’s how we administer our medicine; as human beings to each other, as creators.

MG: And do you feel that our recent presidential election will have a strong impact on artists and their music?
ES: I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s not having an impact on me; I don’t want to give him credit, you know, for that, but I don’t know. I can’t say. I’m not talking about him, but I’m talking about the environment that he’s a system of.

MG: Now I’d like to talk a bit more about jazz and music in general. Are there are any new artists that you feel are breaking new ground, whether in jazz music, or in general?

ES: (inaudible) Zhu Yin is an amazing composer. I just saw her in New York at this composer’s forum, town hall—I don’t know what you call it. We were sitting around talking about composition, and we each played a couple of pieces and she totally blew me away. Yeah, there are lots of artists doing extraordinary work. Did you say young people?

MG: Or just new artists in general, or just contemporary artists; people that are breaking out now, or maybe people that don’t get enough attention, or anything really.

ES: I think Wayne Shorter is somebody who is breaking out now and is one of the most modern and innovative people on the planet and is still happening right now, for sure. I’m always surprised by his work. MF Doom, in case you were wondering. Album-after-album. I don’t feel very up-to-speed on younger-generation jazz musicians. I think, of course I’m a little bit biased because I’m close to him, but Leo Genovese—one of the most innovative, brilliant beings in music I have ever met, and he is just constant. Yeah, and others. (laughs)

Listen to the interview here!