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Esperanza Spalding in 2010

Up To Snuff

John Robert Brown

Esperanza Spalding, bassist, vocalist and composer, was in London during November to appear at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, as part of the London Jazz Festival. “I have to start getting my arco chops back up,” she says. “I used to be primarily a classical bass player before I got into the jazz world so completely. I have a friend who recently wrote a bass concerto, which is way beyond me. I have to get up to snuff so that I can play it one day."

Spalding's use of the phrase, ‘up to snuff‘, prompts me to comment. She tells me that her mother, a user of uncommon phrases, employs the expression. “She’s the real superhero,” says Spalding. “A phenomenal person. I’ve never met anybody like her. She’s incredibly loving, giving, honest - and extremely intelligent and thorough. She is what many people are trying to be. She embodies a lot of saintly qualities.” Spalding, now 25, says: “I didn’t always think that. But the older that I’m getting the more I realise that so many of the things that she represents, and has said, are true and real. She’s still learning and growing every day.”

I wonder, what does Spalding's mum make of her daughter’s great success?

"She doesn’t care. That’s not what she’s interested in. She calls me to talk about the news. We talk about the dog, or my brother. Every time I tell her about something that would be exciting to anybody else, either she says, 'What’s that?' or she asks, 'Who’s that?' or says: 'Oh, nice,' then changes the subject. Perhaps her mother is the inspiration behind Spalding’s political awareness? Clearly, the bassist takes a keen interest in the political issues of the day. The current debate in Britain about Higher Education funding is a good example. “I hope there’s another solution that the universities can come up with concerning the raising of the student tuition fees,” says Spalding. “That same thing happened in the States. I don’t support the smashing of windows. We passed the building [Millbank Tower in central London] where that happened, and I saw it in the news. I do have solidarity with people who are protesting and trying to enact some change. Breaking windows probably won't change much, but I support students and student unions, those people who are keeping the pressure on these institutions to find alternative ways to increase income, other than raising the tuition fees. Students having greater debt widens the class gap. We came here from Paris where, because of the trouble, you couldn’t leave the airport. No cars or trains were getting through. I was witness to the people protesting about the raising of the retirement age.”

And what of her own success? “There’s nothing to get all floaty about," she says. "Things come and they go. Right now a lot of great things are happening. It‘s hard work. I see it and think: 'Okay, dig in, work hard and build up something. All of this success can disappear in a second.' " Coming from some people, such an assertion would sound unappealingly grand. Not so in Spalding's case. Her sincerity is palpable. Spalding was an unusually young tutor at Berklee College of Music. She taught there from 2005 to 2008. When she was appointed she was the same age as the older students. “I had a lot of enthusiasm to teach," she says. "The way I started was to teach on the Five-Week programme, teaching much younger musicians, who are coming to try out Berklee, to connect with musicians, and get their butt kicked a little bit.”

Berklee's Five-Week Summer Performance Program, now in its 25th year, is claimed to be the largest, most comprehensive summer music programme available anywhere. Better known simply as Five-Week, the summer programme has a diversity of study options, the highly-regarded Berklee faculty, visiting artists, and state-of-the-art facilities. The course is a premier contemporary music summer programme for young musicians. Each summer, approximately 900 participants from across the U.S. and from 70 countries around the world share in this summer experience. Five-Week includes all instruments, all contemporary styles, and all levels of musical ability.

“I had the right enthusiasm, but I didn't have enough knowledge of teaching,” says Spalding. “So, in some ways I failed miserably, and in some ways I learned hell of a lot. In some ways I think I helped some students. I learned more and more as the semesters progressed. When I think of all the touring I was doing, I didn’t have enough energy to fully invest into the right kind of preparation. I was more a mentor than a teacher, which was all that I had time for. Some of those students needed an extremely structured pedagogical approach to everything. I wasn’t able to give that. I was better equipped to be a mentor. So, in the realms where I was a mentor, the process was fulfilling for both parties. In the teaching in the classroom sense, I certainly had a lot of room for improvement. It’ll be something that I’ll come back to.”

“I was mad at myself, and mad at how busy I was, too. I loved the idea of how we were going to impart all of this information that was completely foreign to these young minds. That seems thrilling. But there wasn’t enough time.” Spalding was a student at Berklee immediately before she was employed as a tutor there. Before that, she attended Portland State University as a student. “Portland has an incredible performance programme,” she said. “Almost all of the principals or assistant principals from the Oregon Symphony taught there. I had an incredible bass teacher, named Ken Baldwin. With a strict programme, Portland University made Berklee look like elementary school.

“Portland was such a full course load. I’d only been playing for a year and a half. That was an intense experience for me. I rose to the intensity as well as I could.” Spalding mentions her study of the Bach Cello Suites, the Koussevitzky Concerto for Double-Bass, opus three, and the Bottesini double-bass works. “All the things that you are supposed to study,” she says. “I know I didn’t sound great. I was hanging on by the skin of my teeth.

“Now it’s funny, because my arco chops are so rusty. I only focussed on classical bass for two years, then I went off into the jazz world. Now my classical playing is starting to become a little polished. I discovered improvising before I got into jazz. I was out playing gigs, trying to play the music intuitively, playing by ear. To my mind, coming from the classical realm, the way you learn something is by going to a classical teacher. You go through the books, work on your technique, then move on. Jazz pedagogy didn’t enter my life until I left Oregon for Berklee. I had a few lessons. I would transcribe saxophone solos. I was playing much more than I understood. Before I left for Berklee that summer I went to a couple of camps.”

One was the globally respected arts, cultural, and educational institution and conference facility located in Banff, Alberta, Canada. The other was the Mel Brown Jazz Camp, at Western Oregon University, run by Mel Brown, instructor and jazz drummer.

“There, I went: 'Oops! I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.’ It was good to get a little basic knowledge of the fundamentals of what I was otherwise doing intuitively.Jazz uses the same system of chromatic harmony as classical music. If you study how most chord progressions evolve, and what chord types lead and resolve to what other chord types, you are all set for basic jazz theory, too. I had a good ear and good intonation from playing the violin for ten years before I played the bass. So the idea of hearing an upcoming pitch, and finding it on this fretless instrument, was familiar. I had good time, and a relatively good ear, so I could go in and hear where this thing was going. I made it up as I went along. I was working with basic information. I didn’t understand the fundamentals that are unique to jazz.

“I started working when I was fourteen, When I was fifteen I rented a room in a house outside Portland. I worked, went to college, and paid my way with my car and everything. At a certain point I was working for a market research firm, facilitating corporate focus groups. My gigs started to interfere with that work, because focus groups happen in the evening. My boss said: ‘You’re going to have to make a choice. You can’t keep missing work.’ So I said: ‘Okay, I choose music.’ I started playing a lot. I had a friend who was a piano player in town. We had a trio together. Graciously, he would teach me standards, teaching me the stuff by ear. Once I could learn the progressions and memorise the melody, I would be fine. When people said: ‘What do you want to play?‘ I had a repertoire of maybe twenty songs where I could definitely make all the changes.

“The first time I worked overseas I came to the UK to do a tour with an Afro-Beat band, in 2002. We went all over the place, to Nottingham, Leeds, London, Cardiff and Newcastle. I’ve been back with Joe Lovano. Now I’ve been back with my own group maybe five times. I know what I’ve seen from a van. Newcastle is beautiful, I loved it. The one thing that both our countries have in common is the immigration officers at the airport. Every time I come through Heathrow, I get the most terrible time. I say to myself: ‘Okay, this is where we have kept up with our brothers across the ocean.’ JFK is definitely the worst, by far. Now I have a little taste of what other people experience coming into the States, every time I come into London. The first time I came to London we were given a terrible time.

“What impressed me is that the city of London is so much older, of course, but people have managed to maintain a certain cleanliness. People are respectful of the town. For someone coming from Boston or New York, that’s something special. Maybe it’s to do with being able to touch a more ancient culture? Maybe being more deeply connected to this place enables people to respect it? I don’t know. The suburbs here are clean. I’d heard that the British could be curt, but I’ve found them polite, with an across-the-board general courteousness that seems cool. I feel that in concerts, too. People are listening seriously. They’re paying attention. This band is sounding tight now. It’s a different group than the one we actually made the record with. It’s wonderful, sounding better and better. I’m glad that in a city like London, with such discerning listeners, we have a polished show to present.

“In September we recorded the next record, which is the band Us Five and Joe Lovano. The CD is Bird Songs, an exploration of Charlie Parker compositions, to be released in January 2011. The CD is hip, really cool. We are to do a series of gigs at the Village Vanguard with that new repertoire. I’m just playing bass in that, but the band is incredible.”


“Nobody’s fully sure where it was built. It’s either French or German,” says Spalding. “I got it from somebody who got it from somebody who got it from an orchestra pit musician, who had played in the orchestra for 50 years. When he died, his family sold the bass.” The instrument, flat-back, made of spruce with a cherry wood fingerboard, is three-quarter size, and dates from the late nineteenth-century.

The CD Chamber Music Society (HU13181002) was released in August, on Heads Up International, a division of Concord Music Group.

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