[INTERVIEW] ESPERANZA: Our Black and Golden Jazz Lady

Bursting into the mainstream in 2011 with her Grammy win for Best New Artist, the multi-talented Esperanza Spalding is now prepping her fourth album, Radio Music Society for release on March 20th. And along with the music, the Portland native wrote and produced a short film accompanying her work. EBONY caught up with the whimsical 27-year-old upright bass player about how life’s changed since piercing pop culture.

EBONY.com: Have you struggled with becoming a bigger star since winning the Grammy?

Esperanza Spalding: It’s the same. There’s a music model and a business model. The music model says keep doing things that make you uncomfortable because that makes you stronger. The business is a crap shoot—no one knows the right way to handle an up-and-coming artist. Anything I do has to have integrity, so if you just want to make music, it’s not difficult finding support. The hard part for a publicist or manager is making a star.

EBONY.com: In describing the Radio Music Society song “Endangered Species” you reference saving the “lungs of the earth,” what does that mean?

Esperanza Spalding: I was opening for Prince and playing Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species” from his Atlantis album but thought it might be too weird for the audience. So I asked Wayne if I could write lyrics to his song so people could experience it in a different way and he said go for it. As I was writing, the words “human danger” came to me and we first think of animals, but I was talking about how humans are just as endangered as any other species on earth because if our ecosystems fail, we’re affected too. The lungs of the earth are the Amazon, which I learned while hiking through Peru’s pristine jungle. I was in awe, but I met a biological conservationist who was very pragmatic, and dedicated to saving the Amazon for human survival.

EBONY.com: As a Jazz artist, what made you collaborate with R&B and hip-hop acts like Algebra, Q-Tip and Laylah Hathaway for this album?

Esperanza Spalding: Genre boundaries are good for marketing but they all but disappear when you’re a player. I met Algebra through pianist Robert Glasper a few years ago and what we recorded, “Black Gold,” is from 2009. Q-Tip called me to be on his album and I flipped that into him working with me. Laylah Hathaway and I know each other and she saw me opening for Prince with “Endangered Species” and afterward sang it back to me, saying ‘That’s my favorite record.’ I invited her to be on my album and I wrote an arrangement for our two voices. 

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EBONY.com: Why’d you choose to cover Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It”?

Esperanza Spalding: I love that song. I heard musician Gretchen Parlato do it in such a paired down way with just a guitar that I began to hear the song in a different way. I wanted to do it because I thought I heard something else to it. One day, I played a little bit of the bass line and musician Joe Lavano told me it’s important to make a song your own if you’re going to do it and I asked him to play it with me. The way I view the song is probably very different than how others see it, I hope it’s not too controversial.

EBONY.com: What inspired the accompanying film project?

Esperanza Spalding: The film moves you through the music and I thought a film would be a cool way to draw people subtly into the conversation between the jazz ensemble. I thought the record would be more heavily based in improvisation but that wasn’t what the music was asking for. Still, I wanted to use visuals to draw people into the music. My manager and I put up the money without any idea how to make a film and I’m so glad we didn’t because it might not have happened. We had this small budget and a small team. I wrote all of these scripts and we just went for it. It’s miraculous.

Understanding Jazz isn’t quick. It’s like a quote Duke Ellington told a listener who said she didn’t get his music. 'I’ve been working on this for 20 years, why should you expect to get it in five minutes?' I like that, because it does take time to receive all that’s being given in a Jazz context.