Esperanza Spalding: It Takes A 'Society' Blending jazz, soul, Brazilian vocalese and classical, Spalding creates music with broad appeal. With Chamber Music Society, the bassist and composer harkens back to her classical music training with a string section.
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Esperanza Spalding: It Takes A 'Society'

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Esperanza Spalding: It Takes A 'Society'

Esperanza Spalding: It Takes A 'Society'

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Robert Siegel.

If youve heard of the jazz artist Esperanza Spalding, then you know that you're in for a treat in this next segment. If not, we'll tempt you now with a bit from her 2008, "Esperanza."

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. ESPERANZA SPALDING (Jazz Artist): (Singing in foreign language)

SIEGEL: The rising jazz star brought along her upright bass to Studio 4A recently and sat down with my co-host, Michele Norris, to talk about her style, her process and her brand new record.


Esperanza Spalding blends jazz, R&B, Brazilian vocalese and classical. She creates music with a vibe that proved to have broad appeal at a moment when many in the music industry were fretting that young people were turning away from jazz en masse.

She managed that rare feat: earning raves from the most discriminating jazz aficionados - the straight no chaser set - while also attracting a loyal fan base of urban hipsters all over the globe. And it helps that at 25, Spalding is herself an urban hipster, with her massive afro and her funky wardrobe. And it helped that she had fans in high places.

President Obama invited her to perform at the White House twice, and at his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.

We invited Spalding to stop by Studio 4A, here at NPR, for a preview of her latest CD. It's called "Chamber Music Society." And as the name suggests, it reaches back to her classical training.

Welcome back to NPR.

Ms. SPALDING: Thank you.

NORRIS: What does chamber music mean to you?

Ms. SPALDING: Hmm. My favorite description that I identify with the most is music among friends. That you get together - like-minded individuals - and you choose a piece of music. And you sit together, you sit close to each other with this music on the stand. And you have to listen so carefully, breathe and be connected so intimately with everyone around you, to balance all of the parts involved in bringing this piece to life.

And amazingly, I realized kind of through the process of exploring this music, that's exactly what any ensemble player does in the jazz idiom, too.

NORRIS: Yeah, I'd like to listen to a piece of music here.


NORRIS: And as we do, I want you to help me understand how this music came to you.


NORRIS: And through the imagining, the composition, to the point that it becomes something that we hear.


NORRIS: I want to hear - I want to listen to "Winter Sun."

(Soundbite of song, "Winter Sun")

Ms. SPALDING: (Singing) Once autumn's sun has gone away, and great cotton clouds like a drowsy days, you're the winter sun...

NORRIS: Was this a winter composition for you?

Ms. SPALDING: It was. I was living in New Jersey at the time in a mildly dreary neighborhood, and I would be inside writing. And, you know, you see the light coming in and you look to check if it's sunny yet or not in the winter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SPALDING: And I just started to notice like, wow, thats really amazing pattern that all humans have. You see light in the winter in particular, you're like, okay, is that overcast light or is that sunlight? I want to know whatever that will do for me.

So that's where the inspiration of the idea came from at the time when I was just experimenting with some colors, building chords with fourths. So all over the song, the harmony is - relies really heavily on a lot of chord voices that are build out of fourths.

And actually the time signature is just four but the pattern kind of falls in odd syncopations.

(Soundbite of song, "Winter Sun")

NORRIS: You never take the easy road.

Ms. SPALDING: You know, it feels very natural and easy to me. I never think my music isn't easy until I got to teach it to other people. And then Im going like, why aren't you getting this immediately? It's just blah, blah, blah. It just feels very natural. You know, I write at the piano so I write things that fit comfortably under my hands, and I'm not thinking in terms of any specific compositional methods. I'm just seeking sounds.

So this particular song, the bass line came first.

Ms. SPALDING: (Singing)

Thats very C-minor-esque. And I feel like no, I dont want to do that. What is the tonality that this line is really speaking? So then it's this exploration, finding the right tonality. And in a way, you kind of have to listen passively to what you're actually playing in your own song. Thats how I feel. You listen in a kind of passive way to hear what the song needs to do next.

(Unintelligible) Im listening to a pre-existing piece and, oh yeah, that's right. Now this is going to happen, and then I try to find that sound.

And this song was a perfect example of that, all throughout, listening when it comes time for the solo section. I was like, okay, we've been in this shape, in this type of bass line - the very kind of round, circular pattern that comes back. I either want to elongate that or shorten it, and I chose to shorten it for the solo section.

(Soundbite of song, "Winter Sun")

Ms. SPALDING: And it originally didnt have words because I felt like the music spoke to the content very well: "Winter Sun," that idea of really longing for the sun come up and you can never stop looking. It's going to be the same temperature but for some reason you want to see the sun.

And then when I was on a tour with some other musicians, one night at one a.m. and I couldn't sleep, the lyrics just all came at once. They were like...

(Soundbite of vocal sound effect)

Ms. SPALDING: And this image of this bare tree thats in front of my house in the winter, when the sun comes, I see of course the bark lights up. And I was thinking like, wow, as a tree, what a wonderful feeling that you're freezing. And to suddenly just feel that warmth of the sun pass over you momentarily, that must be a really wonderful sensation. It certainly is to me, as a human.

And that lyric and bass, the naked branches and warmth and light, and then by the end I've taken it on myself. You (unintelligible) making branches in warmth and light. And it's hard to talk about all the details.

I dont feel very intellectually engaged most of the time when Im writing. It's a very intuitive process. So thats the best explanation I think I can give.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: The bass, particularly the upright bass...

Ms. SPALDING: Mm-hmm.

NORRIS: an instrument that often provides deep meaning, and tone and emotion to a composition. You started playing this massive instrument at such an early age. Im wondering if you mastered the instrument before you really understood its capability to convey meaning and emotion, and lend soul to a composition.

Ms. SPALDING: Hmm. Well, funny you say that. I feel that it's exactly the opposite. For what I can imagine and feel and think and hear, I can do hardly anything on the acoustic bass. It used to just be such pure frustration of imagining so much more and being able to get to a certain level of execution, and then, ugh, my body couldn't do it yet, because it takes many years to master this instrument. It's very particular. I don't want to say it's physically demanding. But you really have to practice very carefully to get to the point where you feel comfortable and at ease on it.

NORRIS: If you said it was physically demanding, we would understand.


NORRIS: Because it's just a feet from me and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: really is, it has its own chair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: It's very, very large.

Since you carried the bass in with you today here to Studio 4A, I would love if you wouldn't mind picking it up and playing a song for us. And maybe the first song from the new release...

Ms. SPALDING: Yes. "Little Fly."

NORRIS: ..."Little Fly," which is your interpretation of a William Blake poem...

Ms. SPALDING: Yes, oh...

NORRIS: ..."The Fly."

Ms. SPALDING: ...beautiful poem. Ah. Ooh, yes. That poem is a doozy. It gets me. It gets me. I remember being in Portland and picking out this book that the painting on the cover of the book struck me. I had no idea what it was. I just saw the painting. And I said like, wow, this really beautiful. Let me see what this is about.

And the first page that I turned to of actual reading was this poem. And in the store, I read the poem like about 10 times. It's just an incredibly powerful, simple poem. It really struck me, in that I bought the book and put that poem above my desk. So it's been in front of my face for eight or nine years, since I first saw that.

And then, two years ago, practicing this melody, evolved, developed out of somewhere when I was practicing. And at the end, I felt like, wow. Okay, I definitely want to put lyrics to this. And I realized that it fit the poem to a T. Somehow, my subconscious really wanted to sing this for the people. And that is the story of "Little Fly."

NORRIS: Will you sing it for us?


NORRIS: Sing this for the people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SPALDING: Absolutely.

(Soundbite of song, "Little Fly")

Ms. SPALDING: (Singing) Little fly, the summer's play, my thoughtless hand has brushed away. Am I not a fly like thee? Or art not thou a man like me? Little fly, little fly. For I dance and drink and sing until some blind hand shall brush my wing. If life is thought and strength and breath, and the want of thought is death. Oh, little fly. Then am I but a happy fly? Or am I? If I live or if I die? Little fly, little fly.

NORRIS: Esperanza Spalding, thank you so much for coming back.

Ms. SPALDING: Thank you, thank you.

NORRIS: Esperanza Spalding. Her latest recording is called "Chamber Music Society."

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