Pic credit: Creative Commons, https://bit.ly/2Ul1wRG
We first met Esperanza Spalding back in 2008, when she was 24 years old. The singer, songwriter and bassist had already made waves in the jazz and bass worlds alike with her soulful grooves and developed songwriting. On the eve of release of her second album, Esperanza, she told us about the power of the instrument and how she brings it to the masses.
What first attracted you to bass?
The bass itself attracted me! I physically stumbled upon the instrument and picked it up, and found that it made a sound when I played it. It’s such an amazing instrument that the sound and the instrument itself captivated me. I was quickly able to figure out how to play with other people, which was the most important thing for me at that time. Over the last few years, if there’s something that I need to know, I’ve figured out ways to learn it quickly. Fortunately, I’ve been in a lot of challenging playing situations that have been the carrot and the stick, pulling me along with my technical ability.
What basses do you play?
I have an upright bass of unknown origins: we think it’s French or German and from the turn of the 1900s. It’s a flatback three-quarter size instrument. That’s the bass that I could afford at the time – I heard someone else playing it and I loved the sound. I was lucky, because I only found out later that I’d bought a really good bass. I’ve never been the kind of person who looks for a particular sound and then tries to find an instrument to fit it – I’ve got my bass and I figured out how to work with it.
Does it travel well?
It doesn’t travel at all! The airline companies don’t want me to take it. So I use the bass du jour at the hotel – and that’s a skill in itself, learning how to accommodate that. Typically I bring my own pickup, which goes under the foot of the bridge. It’s the lowest common denominator – no matter what bass you have you can usually get a pretty good sound out of it.
Do you try and improve your playing?
I practice as much as I can, but it gets less and less the more you travel! I’m working on clarity right now in a specific area – the no-go zone right around the shoulder. You know, trying to expand what you can do without using your thumb up into the higher register.
You play Doolin bass guitars too.
I do, yes. It’s just this one guy, Mike Doolin, who makes them out of his house. They’re phenomenal. He’s actually an acoustic guitar maker, so this has an acoustic guitar body – obviously much bigger than an acoustic guitar – with a fretless fingerboard and an acoustic pickup in it. It’s kind of like a mariachi bass. I just recorded with it for Gerard Presencer yesterday and it was awesome, but I rarely use it because contextually it’s not often a good fit. Sometimes I play a fretless Fender, but I usually use the Doolin when I need an electric. It kinda has that older feel like sticky clay, with a dirty growl – but it sounds like an acoustic instrument too. It’s a little like the Steve Swallow bass, but the body has more of a resonating timbre. Miraculously, it doesn’t give me any feedback problems. I just put it through an amp, mic it up and call it a day.
Quite a few electric bass players find the upright bass impossible to play. Any tips?
The first thing is to recognize that it’s a new instrument, and take it slow. The same thing happened to me when I first went to electric. You think ‘Oh, it’s a bass’, which is functionally the same and tuned the same way, but it’s a totally new instrument – and I was actually hurting myself when I switched to electric, not because it’s harder but because you use different muscles. You have to train a specific muscle in order not to hurt it. The mistake that most people make is the same one that I made, which is that you assume you can play it. It’s like the difference between guitar and cello – they’re different instruments. You have to go very slow and be conscious of what you’re doing with your muscles – and you have to get rid of the word ‘difficult’ from your vocabulary, because otherwise you’ll think it’s hard when in fact it’s not as hard as you think it is!