Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Esperanza Spalding Interview

In February of 2011, I had the privilege of sitting down with Esperanza Spalding, the first jazz musician to ever win the Grammy Award for Best New Artist. Weeks later, Justin Bieber fans were still upset. They'd been retweeting this mock dialogue :

Justin: Knock Knock.
Esperanza: Who's There?
Justin: Esperanza Spalding.
Esperanza: Esperanza Spalding who?
Justin: Exactly.

Esperanza has shown nothing but grace in light of the onslaught by Bieber fans. At a one day master class she gave jazz majors at Portland State University, she drew a standing room only crowd. She made a point about supporting solos rather than stepping over them by asking one of the musicians how his day was and then interrupting him incessantly. The audience laughed.

Born in Portland, Esperanza says her life changed course at age 5...thanks to an episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.

He played one of the Bach cello suites and I had never heard someone play an instrument.
I just never heard music like that and I was...I dunno. Sold.
I was captivated and I went "Mama, I wanna do that .

For years she played classical violin. Then Esperanza found a double bass in her high school music room.

I was just trying first of all to play a note which was impossible.
Cuz if you've played violin for 11 years
and you try to play bass it's like your body rejects.
It's like no.

At 16 she enrolled at Portland State University to study jazz with Professor Darrell Grant.

(Darrell Grant)
She had a really good pulse
A really good sense of rhythm
She had a good sound in the bass even from the beginning
She could pull the strings.

A year later, Esperanza won a full scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music.
At 20, she became the youngest faculty member in school history.
Her focus has always been on her art.
It's taken her a long way from Portland:
around the world, to the top of the jazz charts, even to The White House.
But she is still a Rose City girl at heart.

I love this city.
I'm always raving about it.
And then people come here and they see what I mean and
I'm like "Yeah!"
I'm proud.

And of course Portland is proud of Esperanza,
The night she won her Emmy a roar could be heard throughout the city,

(Darrell Grant)
I mean, we just screamed.
I was like "She won! She won!"
I went out on my front porch like yelling "She won! She won!"

Wherever life takes Esperanza she won't be travelling light.
After all she is in a committed relationship with that double bass.

I just like the damn thing you know
It doesn't have to get too deep
I just love the instrument &
It's fun to play
...so I keep going.

Because this blog is about music I just want to let Esperanza talk more at length about that last point: her love affair with the double bass.

I don't know why it's the bass.
When I picked up the bass something just felt more open
It was like "Oh I speak this language".
I don't know what that means.
I certainly couldn't play.
Like anyone who just picked up the bass I had no physical ability on the instrument, but I guess I felt like I could do it.
It just seemed accessible to me.
That was the beginning.

Then as I learned more about the bass's role in music and arrangement, I really started to love being a bass player.
I really loved playing with harmony like that.
I loved the exploration of expressing textures with lines.
Expressing whole palettes of color with one line.
I love that.
It's like playing drums and piano kind of together and those are two of my favorite instruments.
And so I love translating rhythmic ideas and grooves and patterns to this melodic instrument.
I just love everything about it.
I love the tone.
I love where it lies in the sonic spectrum--in a song.
And for singing, it's such a nice accompaniment for me anyway.
I love counterpoint.
I'm a fan of counterpoint.
I'm addicted to counterpoint.
For me , that's the way I get to express it.
With the voice and the bass and I got hooked on that right away ( laughs).
And of course there are reasons you can't explain:
I just love the damn thing, you know?
It doesn't have to be too deep.
I love the instrument and it's fun to play,
And it's fun to play improvise music with people that you enjoy communicating with so ...I keep going.

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