Esperanza Spalding: E-Harmony

ENTRAL TO ESPERANZA SPALDING’S BRIEF BUT BEDAZZLING career has been her flair for the unexpected.

CENTRAL TO ESPERANZA SPALDING’S BRIEF BUT BEDAZZLING career has been her flair for the unexpected. Just as we were settling into the notion that a 20-year-old acoustic bass-playing jazz vocalist could swing with the wisdom and force of Ray Brown while singing with the intuitive rangedefying freedom of Ella Fitzgerald, Spalding released her second CD, Esperanza. It revealed her propensity for Afro-Cuban and Brazilian music (including singing in Portuguese) and also showed a fertile compositional style built around the contrapuntal function of her voice and bass. Next, she retreated to the parlor for an intimate but deep chamber session that exposed her string-laden classical side. So it should come as no surprise that Esperanza has at last embraced mainstream music with her latest, Radio Music Society. Radio’s revelation is in just how well she tunes into the broader pop genre without compromising her jazz and world roots or her artistic integrity. Uplifting messages about role models and everyday heroes are delivered with memorable melodies and horn-accented funk grooves last heard via vintage Earth, Wind & Fire. Elsewhere, astute looks at the media, war, and the legal system receive the appropriate reflective muted tones and dense orchestration. This is pop with Spalding’s unique bounce, including a rich rhythmic core led—in yet another unexpected flourish—by her probing electric bass work on nine of the 12 tracks.

Born in Portland, Oregon on October 18, 1984, Spalding, along with her brother, was raised in the working-class King section by her single mom. She credits seeing Yo-Yo Ma perform on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood when she was just four as her initial attraction to music. A year later she began playing violin, spending the next decade with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon. At age 14, while attending the Northwest Academy performing arts high school on a scholarship, Esperanza ventured into a music room and began messing around with an acoustic bass. A teacher heard her and showed her how the blues worked, and she began returning daily to play the bass. Spalding’s blues savvy led her to join a handful of local bands, including the indie rock/pop group Noise For Pretend, where she first began developing the craft of singing and playing. She enrolled at Portland State University and studied classical music for a year before switching to Boston’s Berklee College of Music on a full scholarship. There, she immersed herself in jazz, drawing from such key influences as Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Dave Holland, and her Berklee teacher, Joe Lovano. In 2005 she became one of Berklee’s youngest-ever instructors, at age 20.

On the performance side, Spalding toured with Patti Austin and Lovano, and she released the collaborative trio effort, Junjo, under her name in 2006. Her critically acclaimed 2008 disc Esperanza topped the Billboard Contemporary Jazz chart, remaining on it for well over a year. Live appearances for President Obama at the 2009 White House Poetry Jam and Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies, at BET’s 2010 Prince Tribute, and in her own 2010 set on Austin City Limits (after which she became the most searched person on Google for the ensuing 24 hours) further raised her profile, as did CD guest vocal slots with Stanley Clarke, Fourplay, and Mike Stern. The summer 2010 release of her Billboard Jazz chart-topping third disc, Chamber Music Society, set the stage for her unprecedented 2011 Grammy win for Best New Artist (in the stunning upset of Justin Bieber), and a whole new level of recognition. With that audience dialed in, Radio Music Society is poised to broaden the boundaries of commercial music and Spalding’s ever-expanding star power. We talked to Esperanza on a chilly afternoon in Greenwich Village to get the lowdown on the CD’s fantastic frequencies.

What was your concept for Radio Music Society, and how does it relate to Chamber Music Society?

My original concept was to do a double CD, one half an intimate chamber approach to interpreting the songs, the other half a jazz ensemble with horns interpreting the songs with elements of improvisation, but formatted for the extroverted medium of radio. I quickly saw how much work that would entail, and I also came to realize the material and the corresponding colors couldn’t live in the same project, so I split them into two distinct packages.

Did you make any considerations for the material’s accessibility?

No, that never crosses my mind. What we’re doing is using the time-tested tools—the forms, arrangements, and sonic qualities of the instrumentation—to make the songs sound like they could be played on the radio. My sole focus is on what can I do to bring the song from my initial seed of an idea to a fully developed piece of music that comes from the heart and delivers an emotional impact. What I do consider is the value of having these awesome musicians on a record that might have more mainstream appeal. Their presence is so powerful, beyond all of the language they’ve mastered, that you feel something extra from them when they play. It touches your heart and your soul; it’s uplifting and inspiring. I’d like to hear more of the human element in current pop.

What led you to play electric bass for most of the CD?

It was the sound I heard in my head for most of the songs, especially a song like “Let Her.” I mean, anything is possible on upright, but that song just seemed texturally like it needed electric bass, and it set the tone. I’ve been playing the electric for a few years without focusing on it as a primary instrument, so it’s new in a way. Part of the premise of this CD and band was to have a reason to play and explore the electric. On upright I have more comfort and better access to be able to play whatever I might hear in my head, but I want to get to that place on electric bass where I don’t have to think about it; if I want to find something I can just go there. Being on the road practicing and playing it every night will go a long way toward that goal.

Who are the main influences on your electric bass playing?

Well, there are plenty of people I wish would influence my playing! I really love Jaco and Gene Perla. The left-hand bass playing of Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock has had a big impact. I love Anthony Jackson, Pino Palladino, Willie Weeks, and Derrick Hodge. Jaco and Stevie are the two I’ve sat and transcribed; I haven’t yet closely studied early masters like James Jamerson or Chuck Rainey. There are records I’ve heard my whole life where I don’t know who the bassists are, but I’ve sort of absorbed their playing by osmosis.

Why did you choose to play fretless bass, and what are your thoughts regarding intonation and tone, coming from the acoustic bass?

I didn’t choose between fretted and fretless. In 2008 I was checking out SWR amps, and Fender sent me a fretless Jazz Bass. It sounded real good, and it has been my main electric ever since, so that was the bass I used when I recorded Radio Music Society. With regard to intonation, I come from violin, so instrument or neck size has no bearing for me; it’s just a matter of modifying to the given space. That’s where François Rabbath’s upright bass method books have influenced my approach. Rather than mentally trying to play in tune, he feels it’s all about your hand learning the distance between specific pitches and knowing how to get to there in a specific time. He has exercises where you close your eyes and reach out and repeatedly grab an object in front of you. You’re basically training your hand where to go. Then you move the object around and attempt to grab it on the first try. I’ll still mess up on my fretless fingerboard, but it feels like familiar territory now.

When it comes to tone on the fretless, I don’t really make the connection from upright. What I do feel—on both acoustic and electric—is that most of my tone ultimately comes from my hands and my touch on the instrument, much more so than what happens electronically from cable to amp. That’s true of any string player.

Do you transfer techniques between acoustic and electric?

Probably more than I consciously realize. Recently, I was rehearsing in an acoustic trio with [pianist] Gerri Allen and [drummer] Terri Lyne Carrington, and from playing more electric I’ve become very aware of the rhythm of muted strings and ghosted notes— where certain notes are more important than others in a line. I had never really thought about doing that on upright, but we were playing a sort of drum-and-bass groove where some notes needed to be long and others needed to be percussive, so I added some left-hand muted open-string plucks. On electric, I’ve just started to get into slapping and popping. Someone told me you can’t slap on a fretless, but when we were jamming with Prince he picked up my fretless and slapped the heck out of it!

Your overall bass concept seems to be tied into singing and playing, where the two voices function in counterpoint to each other.

Absolutely. You can think of it like a piano player’s two hands: They generally move independently, and the combination of the two gives you the sound of the chord changes. Singing and playing allows you to be like a pianist in that you’re aware of how the line of your voice and the line of your bass together form a counterpoint that implies the harmony. The key to creating a good bass line is to remember what was already played and is still hanging in the air. If I play a B in a G chord and I’m going to a C7 next, then I want to go back to the B and resolve it up to C because that B is still in the listener’s ear. You have to control how your line resolves into the next harmonic sound; notes are not separate incidents. Great bass players are really in touch with that—knowing what they just outlined and what was left unanswered. They only have a single line, but with it they try to weave and sew through all of the important notes in the harmonic progression.

How did you write and record the songs for Radio Music Society?

Most were written on piano, although a few were written or started on bass. When I write, I often hear two lines, which usually end up being the melody and bass line. Or I might hear a bass line first and it will give me a melody; that’s what happened on “Radio Song,” which I wrote on electric bass. All of the songs were recorded live with the bands. I had to do my vocals separately due to the complexity of some of the bass lines, and also because I needed to be really in tune on the fretless. But I’ve since gotten together singing and playing the songs at the same time for our touring schedule.

The ballad “Vague Suspicions” has an interesting sonic texture.

I started that song on bass. I was warming up playing the 4ths you hear in the guitar line, and the melody came to me. Not long afterward, I heard the Charles Mingus recording “Blue Tide” [Debut Rarities, Vol. 1: The Charles Mingus Octet, Original Jazz Classics, 1992], and I liked the sound of the vocal and the way the chords are voiced and resolve, so I adapted some of that. I asked Jack DeJohnette to play [drums] on it, and he really brought it all together.

What led you to cover Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It” and Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species”?

Gretchen Parlato and I shared some double bills, and hearing her sing “I Can’t Help It” led me to start playing it live. I did it when we opened for Prince with Joe Lovano and Jeff Lee Johnson in the band, and they sounded so good on it I asked them to record it with me; Gretchen is on the track, too. “Endangered Species” comes from one of my favorite records, Wayne Shorter’s Atlantis. We would listen and sing along with it in the van, and [pianist] Leo [Genovese] said, “Why don’t we try ‘Endangered Species’?” We learned our parts on the fly, and the first night was pretty sketchy, but we got better. For my CD, I asked Wayne if I could put lyrics to it, and he said yes. I wanted to do it a little differently, so Lalah Hathaway sings the soprano sax part and we have a trumpet solo.

What was Q-Tip’s role on “Crowned & Kissed” and “City of Roses”?

He co-produced both tracks; he offered cool suggestions for the bass sound and drum sound on “Crowned & Kissed.” I had an older recording of it with a jazz kit sound on drums, and he suggested a tighter, more contemporary sound. He played the same role on “City of Roses” and added vocals and glockenspiel.

What lies ahead for you in the short and long term?

My current focus is on presenting Radio Music Society and the band live, which has been really exciting, but is a lot to synthesize into one show. In addition, I just did some recording with Mike Stern and Marcus Miller for their upcoming records, and I’ll be doing some gigs with Jack DeJohnette and with Joe Lovano later this year. Longer term, I’m looking forward to doing planned projects with Milton Nascimento and Wayne Shorter. Other than that, I just want to keep trying to unpackage the diffused inspiration we’re all trying to get closer to as artists.

Radio Waves

RADIO MUSIC SOCIETY FEATURES A striking new voice to go with Esperanza Spalding’s vaunted vocals and upright: her fretless Fender Jazz Bass. Free in spirit, fresh in tone, fiercely rhythmic, and fully informed melodically and harmonically, Esperanza on electric bass may be a new sound, but her playing sings with soulful expression. Example 1 contains the main two-bar J-Bass groove of “Radio Song.” Dig how the absence of downbeat notes propels the part forward, and catch Esperanza’s slide up from the very last note—a style point she employs often. Example 2 is the main one-bar groove of “Cinnamon Tree,” which creates its harmony through moving contrapuntal lines. Esperanza played the keyboard-doubled part on her fretless Jazz using a pick Mike Stern gave her. Lay back a bit to bring out the flavor of the angular intervals.

Example 3 shows the two-bar chorus groove of “Crowned & Kissed.” Although the phrase is in 11/4, Esperanza grooves hard with her accent-rich, symmetrical line. Focus on the funky flow more than on tapping your foot. Example 4 has the two-bar chorus groove of “Black Gold,” the CD’s first single and video. Esperanza’s heightened rhythmic sense is on full display in this greasy, straight- 16th electric groove. While she nails the one in both bars, the rest of her notes splash in a sea of syncopation. Be sure to lean into the Bn accent at the end of bar 1, which peeks out nicely from between the drum groove.

Example 5a contains seven bars of the A-section electric line of “Endangered Species,” against which Esperanza has to sing. She advises, “It’s fi ne to learn each part separately, but it’s also important to learn how they interact. I went through the original track little by little, singing my vocal while playing the bass part repeatedly, until they felt comfortable, and then I moved on to the next section.” Example 5b occurs later in “Species,” during Darren Barrett’s trumpet solo at 3:38. Throughout the solo, in-between the grounding funk figure in bars 2 and 4, Esperanza reacts to Barrett’s solo with both “inside” (bar 1) and “outside” (bar 3) fills, summoning equal parts Michael Henderson and Dave Holland.

Example 6a is the main two-bar chorus groove of “Smile Like That,” played on upright. It’s a prime example of Esperanza’s knack for hearing dual melodies when she writes, and developing the lower one into a bass line. Feel the tumbao-like pushes after the initial downbeat. Example 6b comes from the bridge (where it’s Gilad Hekselman’s guitar solo) and outro section of “Smile.” Bask in the swirling harmonic colors while ripping out the harmonics double-stop in bars 1 and 3.


Solo Radio Music Society [Concord Jazz, 2012]; Chamber Music Society [Telarc Jazz, 2010]; Esperanza [Heads Up 2008]; Junjo [Ayva, 2006]
With Jack DeJohnette Sound Travels [Entertainment One Music, 2012]
With Joe Lovano’s Us FiveBird Songs [EMI, 2011]
With Terri Lyne CarringtonThe Mosaic Project [Concord Jazz, 2011]
With Nicholas Peyton Bitches [In + Out, 2011]
With John Blackwell Project4ever Jia [JBP, 2010]
With Mike SternBig Neighborhood [Telarc, 2009]
With Joe LovanoFolk Art [Blue Note, 2009]
With FourplayEnergy [Heads Up, 2008]
With Stanley Clarke Toys of Men [Heads Up, 2007]


Electric bass Fender Jaco Pastorius Fretless Jazz Bass
Upright bass 1800s u-size flatback of unknown origin with David Gage Realist pickup
Rig Aguilar Tone Hammer 500 head with DB 410 or SL 112 cabinets
Strings Electric, Fender 9050M Stainless Steel Flatwounds (.055, .070, .090, .105); upright, Thomastik Weich
Bow German-style carbon fiber