The first thing that strikes you upon seeing Esperanza Spalding perform live, after of course marveling at her funk-tastic Afro, is how totally in control she is. The three-time Grammy-winning singer/bassist/composer completely rules the stage with masterful vocals, impeccable precision and inspiration on both the upright and electric bass, and a breezy confidence that keeps the audience and her backing band eager to see just what musical journey she might embark upon next.
On Friday night at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Spalding – who was crowned the Best New Artist by Grammy in 2011 – shares her next musical project: her “Radio Music Society” tour, which aspires to expand on the idea of jazz-inspired pop-radio music.
She talked to The Miami Herald about the show, how she chose the bass over other musical instruments, and her feelings about being a role model.
What was the concept behind “Radio Music Society”?
A society of musicians making music for radio [laughs]. No, there’s a different story and evolution behind every song on the album, because I didn’t write them for the album. I made an album based off of the content that I had and wanted to share. But that being said, the kind of music that I was trying to perform and that I was into creating during the period when I was writing most of the music was – I don‘t know all these words that people say aren’t associated with jazz music, but I associate it with music that I would turn on the radio and hear it and it would catch me, catch my attention. I mean, jazz does that to me, too. But as a kid I’d listen to the quote-unquote “oldies” station – so what does radio music mean to me? And those songs are sort of like the best I can do of my version of what I would hear on the radio.
Did it surprise you to win the Grammy for Best New Artist in 2011? I mean, you beat Justin Bieber.
Yeah, but I don’t feel like I “beat” anyone. The word “best” is what makes it all seem sort of ridiculous. I mean, you could be a “great” new artist, or a “new artist with lots of potential,” but “best”? I understand it’s a competition, but it’s not really a competition, because you don’t sign up for the competition when you’re creating your music, right? The whole idea is that you’re doing your thing and somebody hears it and thinks it’s valuable and wants to acknowledge it on the world’s stage. So it’s not “beating” anybody – it’s not like I walked away with the gold and everybody else is just bronze and silver. If you talk about it that way, Justin Bieber is the gold and I’m somewhere below bronze in terms of the revenue we’re turning over to the “success” in our field. All that being said, I was surprised that somehow the people voting ended up in a majority way, voting for me. That was a surprise. But the whole point is that there’s room out here for everybody, and of course everyone has different favorites.
I’m grateful that that happened, because it helped my ability to do the “Radio Music Society” tour with all those musicians. I don’t think that would have been possible without the added notoriety or marketing availability of my image out in the world.
You’re the only jazz artist to ever win that award – what does that mean to you?
It means that there’s a problem, a problem with the gatekeepers that for whatever reason this music isn’t present, isn’t universal in the public arena. And really, the reason it’s so shocking is that everybody assumes that the whole awards ceremony is related to popular music. Well, that’s sort of like a given, right? I mean, nobody is expecting to hear Chicano music acknowledged there, or classical music. Everybody just sort of writes it off as that’s pop over there in that world. Honestly, people don’t consider improvised music popular music, so that’s why you never get any of it over there. But it doesn’t have to be like that.
But of course when I’m saying “improvise,” I’m saying that to leave room for other forms of music that maybe have similar elements that aren’t seen as crossover material, like bluegrass. But I think we’re all doing fine, but it would be nice if in the public domain there was more room made, or there was more room allowed, for a more diverse cross-section of musical styles. I think the public at large would appreciate that.
So what can we expect from your show?
Well, I guess you trust me if you bought the ticket. And I don’t feel I can describe what we do. You have to go with open ears and be prepared to have fun, and be prepared to hear a bunch of great musicians. It’s like the old anecdote: Talking about music is like dancing about architecture. And I really think that’s true: We’re so used to language being able to describe anything, at least with metaphor. But the direct experience is everything.
You’ve been a musical person practically since birth. What drew you to the bass?
Hmm – I can’t rightly say. It’s somewhere between mystical and inevitable [laughs]. But when I heard it, and I walked up to it and picked it up and said, “What’s this?” when I was 15, it was captivating and it was fun, and the whole mystery of improvised music suddenly hooked me. And I still love it. And it’s so visceral and non-intellectual, and I’m still having that passionate attraction to the instrument like I always do.
Did you start on the electric and sort of graduate to the upright, or what?
No, I started on the upright, and ended up playing the electric because I wrote some songs on the piano, and realized that the bass line didn’t really lend itself to the acoustic bass. I mean, it sounded fine, but I thought that the electric would really lay it in there. But I don’t think of myself as an electric player – I’m a bass player, and sometimes I can get away with playing certain songs on electric.
How difficult was it to master singing and playing different rhythms at the same time? Because you’re really good at it.
It’s very difficult to master, and that’s why I haven’t mastered it yet – but I’m working on it!
A song like “Black Gold” can go a long way toward influencing and inspiring African-American kids. How do you feel about being a role model?
Oh! Well, we’re all role models. I mean, just because thousands of people don’t see what you do doesn’t mean you’re not a role model. I think if you listen and you’re sensitive to it, there’s a calling for every human being to be a role model for someone. And I’m sure we can think back in our lives about people who were role models for us, whether they are well-known or not. A neighbor or friend or teacher or relative – you can dedicate yourself to be an example of the lifestyle that you wish for, and be a positive example for others. I know the role models in my life aren’t famous – they’re just people that I know, and every day I learn by their behavior that they’re somebody I’d like to be more like in certain ways, you know?