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Esperanza Spalding: Shining and Exploring

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You have to spend time with your instrument so that when you hear something, you'll have the technical ability to follow.
Fresh off a European tour with George Wein, Esperanza Spalding nestled into the cozy settings of the Regatta bar. Spalding, a former student and instructor at Berklee College of Music, has played numerous venues in Boston. But this occasion was special. May 29, 2008 celebrated the release of her most recent CD, Esperanza, and marked the first time the talented bassist and singer headlined this particular cornerstone on Boston's jazz scene.

As Spalding gracefully strolled toward the stage, her audience enthusiastically applauded. Spalding's reaction—an elegant smile—shined from the stage, brightening the dimly lit room.

Clad in a flowered dress with brown and black hues, she gently tapped her size 7 high heel shoes to the rhythmic strumming of guitarist Ricardo Vogt. For over three minutes, the band accompanied Spalding's scat singing, launching into a 10-minute version of the CD's third track, "I Adore You."

The night's performance, two closely mirrored sets, drew upon pieces from the CD, including "Body and Soul" (which Spalding sang in English instead of Portuguese). Both sets also contained a shuffling piece, "Sunlight," that Spalding wrote for her mother and a stunning exploration of Nina Simone's "Wild is the Wind." Notable pieces from the first set included "Precious," a radio release, and Betty Carter's "Look No Further," the closing number, which Spalding performed on upright bass, accompanied by a complimentary snapping rhythm from the audience.

"Well, I thought the first set awesome," Spalding reflected. "I thought it was wonderful. Great people and it was sold out."

The second set also opened with "I Adore You," but this time it was Otis Brown's improvisational drumming that drew enthusiastic applause. The fourth song, a zesty 10-minute rendition of "Mela," came with a prelude: "This is the jazzy part of the show," Spalding warned. "If you have an aversion to improvisation, I recommend you go potty now. If you like it, I recommend you stay." Another gem, "Fall In," juxtaposed Spalding's soulful, bluesy voice with pianist Leo Genovese's accompaniment for a truly captivating number. The set closed with "Body and Soul." "Body and Soul is always extremely fun because we really get to freak out and be jazz musicians," Spalding stated with a laugh.

Spalding's music thrives on use of counterpoint—playing different melodic lines, which tend to meld together, producing a harmony. For Spalding, the different melodies are her scat singing plotted against her bass playing. When referring to her music, she states: "I think it's unusual for most people to hear upright bass and voice in [counterpoint] combination." Spalding is quick to point out the use of counterpoint as far back as big-band era bassist Slam Stewart.

For the band's recent studio effort, Spalding explained that roughly half of the material involving her bass playing and scat singing was left in its original recorded format. "I try to avoid overdubbing the vocal part," Spalding stated, emphasizing that capturing the interaction between musicians is crucial.

While at Berklee, Spalding observed that even in casual conversation, people tend not to take the time to listen and really hear what other people are saying. She felt it was not only commonplace, but also an awful habit. Spalding made a conscious effort to break that habit in her conversations and has carried the idea into her music.

Spalding considers it a compliment when other musicians describe her as a good listener. "That's something I wasn't always good at. Be humble and listen to what people are playing, that's something I work on."

While discussing her approach to playing, Spalding touched upon what she feels is one of her greatest strengths. "I'm not afraid of things or people. I'm not afraid to look stupid trying to do something original." Reflecting upon a prior conversation with drummer Brian Blade, Spalding shares the following insight: "When people ask you to join a band they asked you to be there because of you. They asked you to be in the band. Just play like you. Sound how you sound. I try to take that with me on every set. I think that's one of my strengths, if I may be bold enough to say it."

Continuing, she adds: "You have to spend time with your instrument so that when you hear something, you'll have the technical ability to follow." That's the nature of improvisational music.

In August 2007, Spalding appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival as part of Donald Harrison's Nouveau Swing project. Spalding recalls: "Donald is always heavy with improvisation. At sound check, he says 'We're gonna do these eight songs' and they're always things you've never heard. It wasn't a pickup gig, but it feels like the first time every time you play with Donald."

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