Esperanza Spalding is a world unto herself. The multiple-Grammy-bedecked singer and bassist wields a musicality that, premised on jazz, is also a vortex wherein rock, funk and soul swirl in virtuosic proggy splendour. At a time of much social and cultural rupture, her worlds-unifying music gleams with a redemptive power that is suffused with a reinvigorating sense of humanity. Luckily for us, she’s also been enlisted to perform at the upcoming Singapore International Jazz Festival (Sing Jazz) 2017. Before she lifts you up, here’s what she has to say about the issues close to her heart.
Hey Esperanza! How do you feel about playing Sing Jazz 2017?
I don’t know what it’ll be like yet, but I’m definitely looking forward to it! I had an awesome visit the last time I was there. I saw the Botanic Gardens, my buddy and his brother took us all over the city, we had good food… It was beautiful.
Your latest album, 2016’s Emily’s D+Evolution, was a huge step outside the realm of jazz, and it served as a channel for the character of Emily to not just make her voice heard, but to explore it as well. Can you tell us more about her?
The title, Emily’s D+Evolution, refers to an idea that growth and progress require a certain amount of degeneration. Old structures, organisms and forms have to break down to create material for new structures, organisms and forms. In that album, I broke away from the form I’ve been associated with, to make room for this character. There was this ‘f**k it!’ attitude, which revolved around the idea that growth is messy and imperfect. It doesn’t look like who you were before, and some people may be mad at you, and not everybody’s going to like it, but part of our only obligation is to allow ourselves to grow and change. That’s what the project was about.
Lots of things have been going on in America, with regards to race, LGBTQ+ rights, and so on. Do you see “Black Gold” as a song of protest?
I see it as a song of action. You can’t spend your whole life working against things. Working for things is a really important practice required for real transformation. Which isn’t to say resisting oppression isn’t productive; it most absolutely is – the same way that if you see someone bullying a weaker kid on the playground, you should make it clear that that’s not okay and stop the violence, you know? Working against something is important, but that song is more about working for something. What is it that we’re fighting for? We’re fighting for our right to know our value and to have that value honoured by other people and by each other. It’s not a protest song, but a reminder. I see it as an affirmation song, to remember what it is we’re working for.
“You can’t spend your whole life working against things. Working for things is a really important practice required for real transformation.”
Not too long ago, you worked with Janelle Monáe. What was that like?
Oh, she’s amazing. She’s a genius. She’s a superhero. I love her. She works so hard. She’s so smart. Not only as an individual artist, but the whole business model she’s created with her partners at Wondaland is so forward-thinking and egalitarian. It’s a model where everybody wins, where everybody supports what the others are doing, so they can all win together, rather than all the resources being directed towards any one person. It’s really amazing. I’m so happy to hear that Moonlight won Best Picture at theAcademy Awards. I love it so much.
Let’s talk about jazz. It’s known that the biggest challenge facing contemporary jazz artists is people comparing them to artists of the past and expecting them to sound like Miles Davis. Is this something you face as well?
No. People are usually just surprised I can even play, so I’m dealing with a different kind of challenge. There’s so much phoniness in this world that when people see a pretty woman doing something, they usually assume it’s not because of her hard work or skills, and instead assume she’s a product of the music industry. I get it. I don’t take it personally; my experience is different. People assume that what they know is better than something they’re not familiar with yet. It takes time for people to get acclimated to something they don’t feel they were a part of forming.
How do you feel about this year’s Grammys?
I think it’s really cool that my friends from Snarky Puppy got a Grammy. And I think that Chance is marvelous, so it makes me really happy that he won big. But honestly, other than that, I wasn’t really paying attention. I was at a gig.
A lot of people felt that Beyoncé should’ve won Record of the Year, but they gave it to Adele instead.
Well, it’s a big “they” – it’s a giant conglomerate of people from all sectors of the music industry who vote. So, I mean, if you want to have a ‘People’s Choice Awards’, we can do that, but until that gets organised, we’re sort of at the mercy of the Grammys results, you know?
If, for whatever reason, all the music in the world was wiped out, and there could only be one song everybody were to hear, what song would you pick?
John Cage’s “4’33””, so that in the silence they can imagine whatever music was inside of them.
Catch Esperanza Spalding live at the Singapore International Jazz Festival on April 1 at Marina Bay Sands. For tickets and more information, visit sing-jazz.com.