Esperanza Spalding: A High Note At The Melbourne International Jazz Festival
With her wild unruly Afro, offbeat dress style and avant-garde approach to jazz, Esperanza Spalding is one to watch. The jazz star has already won four Grammy Awards and makes her Australian debut as part of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival next month.
She spoke to woman with drive about her latest album, Emily’s D+Evolution, and fellow artiste and friend, Prince, just a week before he passed away.
You taught yourself to play the violin at age five?
Yes. I started out teaching myself but I also played with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon.
But you discovered jazz through your mother who was studying it at the time?
I remember mum doing jazz lessons when I was eight and I was exposed to the music as a result. I would go with her to classes. I did not feel an affinity for jazz and I was not as curious as I am about it now. It was when I picked up the bass at age 14 and experienced playing the blues and bass lines that the door to jazz opened up for me and made me want more.
Which jazz artists did you grow up listening to?
Bill Henderson and Dizzy Gillespie.
Are you close to your mum? Is she thrilled about your success this far?
My mum is still very important in my life and we are very close. I think we are a lot alike – whether that is for better or for worse. She enriches my life, but I like her in concentrated small doses. She is a supportive mum but not a stage mum so to speak. She is unconditionally supportive. She does think that what I am doing is awesome and she is the first to tell me if my makeup or dress looks ridiculous, but at the same time she is not too aware of what is happening in the current music landscape. She just loves music in her own way. She is not one for hype.
Your latest album Emily’s D+Evolution emerges as a funk/rock hybrid and you teamed with David Bowie’s producer, Tony Visconti, on it. How did that come about?
I had not worked with Tony before. I knew I wanted the mix to sound amazing and I was searching for the right producer. I had all the songs written so I just needed the right person to put the filters on it. I had been listening to David Bowie’s The Next Day  and I loved the sound. Tony had produced it and it got me thinking that he would be the right fit. I approached him, sent him some music and he was very happy to work with me. He is a big music lover and a true professional.
You are close friends with Prince. How did that friendship begin?
We met in 2007 when he invited me to play at a late night jam session with him in Las Vegas. He asked my boyfriend at the time to come along too. We learned a few of his songs from the new album 3121 (released in 2006) and hung out after the show.
What did you talk about?
We talked about angels, religion, history, music and art. He told me he thought I was an angel. I told him “I am not an angel” and that led to a whole conversation about religion and why he believes in angels. It quickly went from me drooling over Prince to finding myself deep in an intellectual conversation with him. I am in awe of his musical contribution, and of him as a man who lives his life in a way that empowers me to respect my art and myself at all times. It was also a privilege to be let into his world. I consider him a friend and someone I can call and talk to about books or movies. He is a mad genius and an amazing man.
You have played for U.S. President Obama three times in your career. What was that like?
It is a real honour to be asked to perform these shows. I do not know if the President actually chose me, because I was never asked directly by him, but I have been invited back on many occasions so I guess they like what they see.
There is a song on the new album that invokes (Canadian singer-songwriter) Joni Mitchell. Do you relate to her folk crusade?
I can see the Joni Mitchell connection with my song Noble Nobles. I love Joni so much. She has totally influenced my singing style and I embrace it.
You cover Veruca Salt’s I Want It Now. How did you feel when you first heard the song by this 90s band?
When I heard the original version online, I was hooked. The arrangement is insane; it is experimental, off kilter and so different. I had actually written an arrangement for another purpose but then realised it was perfect for this song. I like the song’s message and it relates to my storytelling about Emily who is on an adventure in the world and she wants it all.
Is Emily your alter ego on this album?
Emily is my middle name and it inspired the name of the new album and the work that evolved. I think she emerged in my life at a time I needed her to be there. I do not feel like she is an alter ego because she is not someone I am going to refer to down the road. This is a distinct being that came here to do this project and open up this channel for me. I will be personifying her in the performance but once she is done with what she is here to do and I have achieved what I wanted to learn from her, she will go back to where she came from.
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