"Deeper connections with everything we engage with" / A conversation with jazz prodigy Esperanza Spalding

Some excerpts from a great interview from The Revivalist. I'm reminded of how our Chris Brown conversation is centered around an appreciation of nuances and b-sides. But, more importantly, if you look close enough, you'll see this is testimony -- a look into the spiritual and philosophical journey of a present, disciplined practicer of life.

A Conversation with Esperanza Spalding
(SOURCE: The Revivalist)

Talk a little bit about your relationship to the bass. Is there a particular way you feel when playing versus practicing? How has your relationship or connection changed over the years?

When I’m practicing, or when anyone’s practicing, we’re honing the details. We’re studying physically how to become agile. We’re working out, in sort of frozen time, meaning we can take a long time with a concept or an idea or a pattern or sound if we need to, until we have access to it physically, and intellectually. We can sort of stop the clock, so to speak, and we can go in and hone in the details. Refine, polish. All these things that have to do with our physical and intellectual understanding, and ability to do something. So when you’re performing, ideally, you don’t have to worry, or think about those things. When I get on the stage and I’m performing, what I’m trying to do is to play from a place of transmission. I want to intuitively have access to these intellectual concepts—either it’s a sound combination, or a physical pattern. I’m passively trying to convey a feeling, or a story, or a thought through the notes, through my instrument. So I’m not worried about technique; I’m not worried about playing a certain shape or phrase. I’m assuming and I’m trusting that these things I’ve practiced will come out when they need to come out to contribute to the music in that moment. So, in a way, it’s like the clock is moving now. So once everything just happens spontaneously, in real time, you’re not really in control of it. The music that we’re playing is based so heavily in improvisation. So when I get on the stage, I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. I know something’s going to happen, but I have to be free enough to listen and react to what’s happening around me. So I kind of let go of all that intellectual control and physical planning, and just try to let the music come out of my well-refined machine, being my body, that is handling the instrument. I think most instrumentalists would say that’s the main difference between performing and practicing.

And as we all get older, we start having deeper connections with everything we engage with. You have a broader understanding of the way that you’re interacting with your work. So when I was much younger, the bass was just fun, and it was intuitive. And improvised music was just a fun, intuitive thing. And now it’s really starting to become a language that I’m studying as a language, and studying different ways of articulating, and vocabulary, and grammar, and different ways of putting together these fine words with their fine meanings, to say finer and finer, and more refined things, that are more meaningful to me. And I assume that as I grow older, and I mature as a human being, my relationship with the instrument itself, and with the music itself will become more ingrained in my being. Just like language—I’m not really thinking about my word choices right now. I’m trusting that what I want to say will come out, and that I have enough vocabulary that the idea I want to convey to you will come out clearly. And as an instrumentalist, that’s sort of what I’m striving for. And I assume that as I get older and have better words and a bigger vocabulary, I’ll just be clearer and clearer. And, of course, for me, the instrument is bass, composition, and singing, and lyric writing, so all of those things I consider my instruments, or perhaps, it’s just music as a whole that’s my instrument, and I intend to just continue to refine and distill my use of the language.

In what ways is the bass limiting (versus the other instruments you tried before it)? In what ways does it allow you more freedom?

I don’t really remember what it was like to play violin. I don’t know why. I don’t remember what it felt like to practice. And I don’t really remember what I physically thought about, what it was like to be a violinist. That was the instrument I played the longest, so I don’t think I really thought about it in that way. But compared to voice, I guess, or compared to writing, for example—again, writing can happen in stop-time, and you can take as much time as you need to work out everything and then you present it when it’s done. Which is very liberating, because you are in control, ultimately, of what gets put out. You can work on it until it’s like, “Okay. This is perfect. This is exactly what I want to say, and I know it, because I’ve edited out everything I don’t want to say.” So with the bass, at least with the way that I’m usually playing it, it’s much more spontaneous, so that is liberating, in and of itself, because you’re so in the moment, and you’re not responsible for everything in the music, so you can sort of relax and lay back, and just become a part of this musical entity. And the drawback to that, of course, is that in real-time, you could play something that you don’t really mean, or you might play something that’s frivolous, or out of tune, or placed in the wrong spot, or not be able to physically achieve what your ears want to hear, which can be a drawback. So the comparison between bass and voice I think would be that the melodies that I’m playing on bass, for most listeners, are much more abstract than what I’m singing. We have such an ingrained connection with the human voice, that however I open my mouth and sing, it’s going to have some symbolism or meaning for the listener—because it’s a voice. The way I breathe, the way I enunciate, even if I’m not singing lyrics, and then when you add lyrics—okay, so then it’s not abstract at all. I’m actually telling you what I’m talking about, what I’m emoting about. So with the bass, there’s a certain freedom in the abstraction. And then of course, again, it’s limiting. If I want to specifically convey an idea, I’m not exactly sure if the listener got what I meant. Whereas with words, I can say, “I am sad because my cat is sick.” So you can say, I understand exactly what you’re singing about. Those are just some comparisons. I don’t find any of them limiting. And they’re not inherently freeing either. With discipline and time, you become freer on all the instruments. And if you don’t practice, and you don’t work hard at them, you feel limited because you can’t physically achieve what you can intuitively conceptualize. So the instruments in themselves are neither, but our relationships with them dictate the relationship that we’ll have whether we feel like a free musician, so we can play and say anything that we feel, or we can never really quite achieve it. (source / full interview)

Originally Posted 4/12/2011

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