February 13, 2011 is a date that will live long in epidemiological infamy. For that was the day Bieber Fever was replaced as the contagion of chart choice by the still more virulent Esperanza Influenza. Beating Justin Bieber and Mumford & Sons to take the coveted Best New Artist gong at February’s Grammy Awards made US bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding officially the hottest thing in jazz right now (and also the subject of more Twitter death threats than anyone else in the world, besides Bieber’s phantom menace, ‘Tom Petterson’). We spoke with the stunning musician before a recent London gig.
This is an obvious one to start with, but what was the whole Grammy Awards experience like for you?
‘It was a blast. I spent about four days in LA rehearsing with the young musicians in the Grammy Band, which is like an all-star band of high-school-aged jazz musicians from around the country. They were so inspiring and wonderful to work with, and their teachers were so inspiring. We performed and hung out together before the brief performance on the telecast. Then, the night before, I was rehearsing with one of my musical heroes, Bobby McFerrin!’
There aren’t many sing-along choruses on your LP Chamber Music Society – but audiences love it…
‘The idea is to explore the middle ground between jazz ensemble playing and classical ensemble playing. One thing I had been missing since I stopped playing violin was playing chamber music. And the band I was touring with before Chamber Music Society was very bombastic ... I was ready for something more intimate to share in performance. Live, we are, of course, keeping the basic song form there: melody, arc, chords. But we leave room to freely interpret within that structure. So, every night when we perform we are seven people [a rhythm section and string trio plus an additional singer] breathing and moving into new territory within the music.’
You’ve had some great audiences in London so far and you seem to be gaining a lot of fans there – what’s it like playing in London?
‘London was the last stop on the first tour I ever did. That was about nine years ago. I was captivated by the city then, and I still am every time I come. The first time I was here, I made the connection between the architectural style of London and my favourite areas of Boston and New York. And I love the organic looking development of the city, particularly in older parts – how the streets wind, and how buildings have sprouted up around each other in creative ways … And audiences have always been warm and welcoming.’
You’ve talked about wanting to bring improvisation back to a mainstream audience – what makes improvising so exciting for you?
‘Spontaneous poetic creation – that’s how it feels to me these days. The yummy and invigorating feeling I get in my brain and guts when I hear a jazz band that moves me, I also get when listening to an amazing freestyle MC. And I think most people who have never listened much to jazz or explored its basic tenets find a language analogy most accessible. Imagine someone who has an interesting and beautiful vocabulary and is able to say meaningful and poetic sentences and tell stories on the spot ... that rhyme! To me that is a really thrilling manifestation of creativity.’
Audiences should expect an emotional and intellectual experience at your gigs …
‘Different people turn to music for different reasons, at different times. Sometimes we don’t want to be challenged. It all depends on the mood the listener is in. It’s like going to see different plays. We know certain directors and playwrights will take us on different mental and emotional journeys. And audiences choose different experiences at different points in their life, year, month, week, hour … If you’re a lover of music, chances are you’ll be open to anything, to see if it will touch you or not.’