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Esperanza Spalding: Living in the Moment

On her latest CD, double bassist Esperanza Spalding explores new ways to bridge the jazz and classical worlds


Esperanza Spalding is sitting in the kitchen of her New York City apartment, eating a tuna melt and macaroni salad with her piano player, Leo Genovese, and talking a mile a minute on a borrowed cell phone.

I offer to call back after lunch.

“No, no—we’re good,” she says between bites. “We’re golden.”

Just like her career.

Singer, bassist, and composer Spalding started as a violinist, but moved to double bass at age 16, winning almost instant acclaim as a prodigy. “It was purely the sound,” she says of her attraction to the bass. “That low hmmmmmm! And once I learned how a bass functioned in an ensemble, I was just taken in.

“You know, it’s music where you’re all ‘leaning on your ear,’ where you’re free to use your intuition. That’s what drove me to the bass from the beginning.”

Her fast-talking hipster patois might lead you to assume Spalding grew up on the teeming streets of New York City, but she’s a product of relatively pastoral Portland, Oregon. Homeschooled, she entered Portland State University at age 16, then won a full scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, graduating with a BM a year early to work briefly as a bass instructor there—the youngest faculty member in the school’s history.

In the past few years, she’s played on recording and concert dates with such jazz legends as Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, and Patti Austin.

Her critically acclaimed sophomore effort, 2008’s Esperanza (Telarc/Heads Up), was a critical and commercial success. Heralded as a rising star, she toured extensively to promote the album, even performing last year at President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize reception.

On her new CD, Chamber Music Society (Telarc/Heads Up), Spalding leads a tight-knit jazz combo through originals and covers that blend composed and improv­isational chamber jazz. It features Spalding, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, pianist Leo Genovese, and percussionist Quintino Cinalli as well as a pair of string players—violinist Entcho Todorov and violist Lois Martin—and special guests that include jazz cellist Dave Eggar.

The disc includes the music of Brazilian heavyweights Antonio Carlos Jobim and Aloysio de Oliveira, Broadway songwriter Ned Washington, and others, as well as original music set to poet William Blake’s “Little Fly.”

It’s another critical hit.

Thom Jurek of the All Music Guide,
recently opined, “Chamber Music Society is a more sophisticated offering than Esperanza. That said, with its musical diversity, stylistic panache, humor, and soul, it’s also a more enjoyable listen.”

A ‘Strings’ Q & A with Esperanza Spalding

Strings This CD has more improvisational music than the last and utilizes other string players in a key role. What was the inspiration for the concept?

Spalding “There wasn’t any grand philosophy behind this project—I was just curious about that part of the repertoire and interested in writing for strings and being able to play more instead of working so much within a song structure. That’s how the concept of a chamber ensemble with the string players and the rhythm section evolved. Then it was just a matter of refining the repertoire and the arrangements.”

What were your considerations when you were writing for the string trio as part of the larger ensemble?

“The trio plays like a piano trio would play and, of course, we have the changes and the form and the melodies, so we know what we’re working around, but the accompaniment is improvised most of the time. The strings, of course, are playing written parts, except for ‘Wild Is the Wind,’ in which [Canadian cellist] Dave Eggar went hog-wild and was playing along with us.”

Pianist Gil Goldstein, the album’s co-producer, is a major player on the chamber-jazz scene. How did his involvement come about?

“I didn’t even know his name at the time, but I got really tripped out on this accordion solo he took on the Joe Lovano record [2002’s] Viva Caruso. And I found myself tripping out on the string arrangements. I guess someone mentioned that to him because he contacted me and we started talking about doing something together. I didn’t have anything specific in mind, but I did ask him to help out with a project I did [last year] at Disney Hall [the 50th anniversary of Miles Davis’ landmark jazz album Kind of Blue]. We got along so well, and he helped me so much with my
arrangement. We just gelled. So I asked him to co-produce Chamber Music Society.”

What did he bring to this project ?

“Years of experience and mastery of his craft [laughs]—that would be the simplest answer. But he’s also a fan of what I do, so when we’re working together it’s not like pulling teeth to get support or to have him look at what I’ve done and/or to contribute to it. Whenever I asked for his help with something that is beyond my level of experience, he just pitched right in and did it.”

How did you select your core string players, violinist Entcho Todorov and violist Lois

“Gil recommended them. He said, these are the best musicians in New York for what you’re trying to do. And they were the perfect crew—they were so enthusiastic, so sweet, so easy to work with. They were
really excited about preparing ahead of time. In the studio, they were so loving, so sincere, and so grooving. They’re masters, and they have a lot of experience playing styles outside of the classical or modern classical repertoire. They jumped right in—it was incredible.”

How much experience had you had arranging for strings?

“Other than a few things at Berklee, that way of playing, for me as a bass player at least, is definitely new. Chamber music
itself isn’t new to me—I did a lot of that when I was a violinist. From a writing perspective, it’s not so different from writing for voice, where you know the voice is going to be more or less interpreting the melody and we’re all accompanying in a very improvised way, you know?”

These arrangements have a distinct sound in terms of the use of strings in a jazz setting—the polar opposite of the lush orchestral accompaniments heard on those classic recordings by Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker.

“Texturally, you can look to bluegrass as a similar format in which you might have
a string player or string players, but the comping of the ensemble is improvised. There seems like there’s a kind of movement in jazz right now [incorporating strings in a chamber-jazz setting]: several current players are doing it, Michael Brecker did a couple of projects with strings. . . .

“It feels like it’s growing more and more common as each party becomes more curious about what the other party is doing. And most jazz musicians have studied classical music and are interested in those
recordings and performances, etcetera, and I think it’s starting to work both ways now.”

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