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Esperanza Spalding: The Intimate Balance

Esther Berlanga-Ryan By

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To celebrate Esperanza Spalding's Grammy award win as "Best New Artist," we're rerunning this September 2010 interview. Enjoy!

Fans of classical music and jazz have argued about music for years. If Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Duke Ellington had ever met, they may have looked at each other in awe—right before debating about bars and notes and solos... and, perhaps, the music would have been flowing just as easy as words. The time when classically trained musicians looked down on their improvising peers has been over for a long time, but certain misconceptions still prevail and, luckily, there are musicians ready to gently open those eyes that still remain closed.

If you can think of a place of solitude, where beautiful music is created, and feelings are exposed in the form of melodies, then Esperanza Spalding's Chamber Music Society (Concord Records, 2010) would find the perfect location to exist. There, the bassist/singer/songwriter has found a shelter for both classical and jazz music, combined with the same fragility with which a poet recites his verses.

There is something about the delicate sound of Spalding's voice that almost reflects that of a violin—enhanced in the way she plays the upright bass. The 25 year-old prodigy (at the age of 20, she was already a faculty member at the Berklee College of Music) digs deep into her young soul to visit the roots of the music that was first responsible for her creative being, and has found a balance between jazz and chamber music on an album that is both enchanting and intimate.

All About Jazz: What has changed for you, since 2008?

Esperanza Spalding: A lot of things have happened, and others continue to happen, wherever the landscape of my professional career is. There has been a lot of traveling and a lot of playing. It's been an evolution of learning myself—not only as a person, but as a musician—but it hasn't been anything like a miraculous event either. It's just part of life, I guess.

AAJ: What's the Chamber Music Society?

ES: Chamber Music Society is many, many things to me. One of the things that represents is this direction, this area in my music that is influenced and inspired by the years as a violinist. Therefore, there was this music that was in my mind, in my head, that never left, no matter how deep I got into jazz, because I spent 20 years playing the violin, classical music, and a lot of chamber music. So that was part of it.

There are other reasons, because I had this repertoire in my head that I was trying to make sense out of, and make a record of it. So I said, "You know what?, this has its own sound, and it's supposed to have its own record." And then, as the music was evolving, and I started writing more for strings and talking to people about it in the music community, I started to realize that there is really this kind of growing familiarity and growing interest and curiosity, obsession/passion between the jazz and the classical worlds, that have an interest in what the other party is doing. It felt like there was a movement that it was sort of developing and evolving in the music right now.

And also, the words Chamber Music Society , what do they mean? What it literally means to me, the definition, is an idea that I think it's really beautiful for all music and all performers: an idea that has a small group of musicians playing together, for entertainment for a party or a dinner; or music that people can play with their friends and experience the entertainment of this kind of music that is being played. So all of these things, combined, to me are really at the heart and at the concept, the real concept, behind the repertoire on this record. It's a long explanation [laughs].

AAJ: It actually makes a lot of sense, after listening to the album. This is a very tender, delicate album. Where's all this sweet energy coming from?

ES: You know, I went through very enlightening experiences personally, and a lot of it had to do with sadness, some had to do with loss, and self-reflection, so it was an energy that it was really real to me at the time the music was coming about. And some of the compositions, once a few of the chord songs that I knew had to be on the record were established, I created the rest of the repertoire around that, to make like a very unified solid piece. So I think a couple of the songs that were absolute for me were "Knowledge of Good and Evil," "Little Fly" and "Apple Blossom," and those three songs are very tender, and are very melancholy in a way; that was just what I was feeling, and I felt I had to be honest.

I think a lot of people, even in my label, were expecting something more mainstream that would provide that proverbial crossover record for the jazz industry, but this felt real, like I really needed to make this record right now, and not only for me but for what I think is going on right now in the music business; it's important to reflect that. So it's real, it's a real record. And there is this unity within the classical and jazz world.

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