Not too long ago, it seemed like only serious music fans — and maybe the National Public Radio crowd — were familiar with bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding. Her early solo work — which fused jazz with pop, world music, soul and more on the albums Junjo and Esperanza — was gobbled up by aficionados across the globe.
Now, more than five years after she stepped on the scene, she's back with a brand-new, classical-music-flavored CD, Chamber Music Society. And this time around, though not a household name, she's on the radar of more than just music geeks. Her profile is a little higher these days due to a few articles in some big-time publications (such as a recent feature in Oprah Winfrey's popular O Magazine) and several appearances on some highly viewed TV programs (including a gig playing in a Prince tribute during the 2010 Black Entertainment Television Awards this past June).
And with Spalding's star on the rise, it's a great time to catch her strumming her upright bass — rocking her big, beautiful afro — in the flesh ... before she starts playing arenas and the like. Luckily for folks in the Queen City, she'll be making a rare appearance in Charlotte on Sept. 24 as the opening salvo for this year's edition of the annual Charlotte Sunset Jazz Festival. Presented every year by the people at Pride magazine, the long-running music fest will take place over the course of two days. Spalding will kick off the festivities, and Creative Loafing just so happened to track down the elusive artist to talk about her live show, her new album, fame and more.
Creative Loafing: So, how are you liking the reaction to your new album?
Esperanza Spalding: Oh ... I feel good about it. And I think the general reaction has been pretty positive, which is wonderful.
Now, do you actually read reviews and stuff like that when your work comes out?
Not so much. I figure you're just as likely to get a good review as a bad review. And I've read really terrible reviews for records that I've loved and really amazing reviews for records that I haven't loved so much. So they don't really mean anything to me so much. I guess I'm happy when somebody likes it. But reviews to me are not necessarily the place to get, you know, that satisfaction.
Where do you get that satisfaction?
The live shows.
Speaking of live shows, I've heard you refer to your latest album as "intimate" — and "music for friends." But, with some of the spaces you'll be performing in while you're on the road, how do you intend to make your live performances more intimate?
Well, it's listening music. It's very intimate music, you know, and we're going to do our best to do justice to that when we present it. It's a very kind of a low-fi presentation; no pyrotechnics, and it's kind of a low element of theater loudly into it. I'm kind of inviting you into my intimate, personal space, in a way. Everyone in the audience, big or small, gets to kind of be a part of this very intimate, musical conversation happening on stage.
What kind of band do you bring with you on the road?
We will be seven total on the stage ... it's three strings, a second vocalist — and obviously I'm singing, too — and then a piano trio. So, piano, drums, and bass.
The last time I saw you perform was on TV at the BET Awards. I know a lot of people were wondering, "Who's that woman with the big afro?"
I know (laughs).
But based on that appearance and the piece about you that ran in O Magazine not too long ago, it seems like you're starting to get more mainstream attention. What are your feelings about a more mass audience consuming your music?
My main feeling is kind of like "Wow! How does this work?" Something really bizarre ... is going to come out of my mouth right now — my own stereotype about my own people. So, I hope you don't write this ... out of context to some degree to sound messed up.
I know one time I was going to play ... one of my concerts for a predominantly black, young audience, And I remember going, "OK, well, I don't want to do, like, too much of this heavy, free, avant garde [jazz] cause I don't think people would appreciate it." And my friend at the time was like, "Esperanza! Everyone always says that kind of stuff, but that's not true. That's just a messed up mindset of what we think a certain demographic of people can and can't appreciate, and that's not fair. Everybody is open to everything if they give it a chance to make their own assessment about it." And I was like, "Damn, I guess that's kind of true." I mean, I had to look at myself as the best example. I have no one commitment to one sound, and if I just have the chance to be exposed to something, if it's something I would like, then I like it — and if I don't, I don't. It has nothing to do with the genre or the idiom or anything like that. And my career has kind of been driving that point home to me, over and over again. Since that point ... every time I think I know what a certain group of people want to hear and I just do what I do uncompromisingly, I'm always pleasantly surprised by the positive response. And that's kind of why I'm really excited about this project. I think that there's a whole demographic of people that don't feel connected with classical music, and they don't feel connected with the history of classical music; and I think just because of that — and maybe because classical musicians aren't intending to expand their breadth to a wider demographic — that stereotype and that assumption kind of gets continued and reaffirmed. And so my hope with every project that comes up is that I'm doing my best to create really meaningful music that I love, that means a lot to me and is of a high quality. And for some reason, people listen to what I do — a lot of different people. And so hopefully my name and my reputation can be a catalyst for people to enter and be exposed to types of music they might not necessarily [have heard]. So, I guess that's my very long-winded response to your question.