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Artblog exclusive — an interview with Esperanza Spalding


[Donald chats with renowned musician Esperanza Spalding, who will give a concert in Philadelphia on Oct. 2. — the Artblog editors]

If you need any additional reason to celebrate October, look no further than Esperanza Spalding’s Oct. 2 performance at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, PA, at 8pm. This performance is one of the many stops on Spalding’s two-week “Thank You October” tour, during which she will also perform in other cities, such as Cleveland, Toronto, and Boston.

To celebrate her birthday month (she turns 30 on October 18), the three-time Grammy Award-winning bassist, vocalist, and composer is joined by her longtime collaborators Leo Genovese and Lyndon Rochelle to present an intimate trio performance, including tunes from her critically acclaimed albums Junjo, Esperanza, Chamber Music Society, and Radio Music Society.

Spalding’s bass-ic background

Esperanza Spalding
Photo courtesy of Sandrine Lee.

When speaking with Spalding on the phone, I immediately shared with her that we are both Berklee College of Music alumni who majored in Professional Music. Not to mention we’re both vocalists who play stringed instruments (I play the cello). Spalding excitedly said, “Uh oh,” as she sipped her tea.

The most valuable lesson Spalding learned while studying at Berklee was to know when to take school seriously and when not to. Coming from a conservatory setting at Portland State University, Spalding had no-bullshit teachers and was somewhat overtrained. So, when she arrived at Berklee as a student (and later became a staff member at the age of 20), she knew not to take everything too literally.

In discussing what the month of October means to Spalding artistically, she related that she feels the most creative during this particular month (and during fall, in general)–as if anything can happen, whether that’s writing poetry or reading a great book. It’s her favorite month, and it serves as her own summer. She especially loves the beautiful autumn colors.

Esperanza Spalding
Photo courtesy of Sandrine Lee.

Creativity and collaboration

Her recent album Radio Music Society was a big success, winning two Grammy Awards, including Best Jazz Vocal Album. The album was very extroverted and melodically driven, with an aim for improvised music to have a place in the strict programming realm of radio, where everything has to fit into a neat, tidy box. Spalding’s core fan base is NPR listeners, especially since there are very few jazz radio stations throughout the country.

I wanted to know if Spalding had witnessed any barriers being broken on the radio as a result of the album. She responded “No,” and then laughed. “Everybody has to have an end game for a project, even if it doesn’t work.” She confesses that she would have had to alter the songs drastically in order for them to even contend for a spot on the radio. Spalding is clearly against anything other than putting out music that is artistically inspired.

She went on to say that fellow collaborator Janelle Monae (Spalding appears on “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes” on Monae’s The Electric Lady) is an important figure in the radio movement, as she defies genres, much like the Beatles, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder did. I added that there are a few Janelle Monae naysayers out there who think she crams too many musical ideas into one album. Spalding noted that a lot of people might be jealous of an artist like Monae because she’s so different and ahead of her time. She eloquently stated, “Creativity always goes when we feel that coming within ourselves, and we must cultivate that creativity.” It’s also important to note that in the social media age, everyone wants to be heard–and therefore, everybody out there has something to nitpick.

Esperanza Spalding
Photo by Carlo Pericos, courtesy of Montuno.

Spalding has collaborated with a versatile list of artists that includes Wayne Shorter, Joe Lozano, Lalah Hathaway, and Dianne Reeves. When considering a collaboration, Spalding never knows if it will work, or if an artist’s creative process will be compatible with her own. As for future collaborations, the list goes on and on. The near future will see Spalding work with British soul singer-songwriter Lauren Mvula. I could easily see Spalding creating wonderful music with Alicia Keys, Andre 3000, and Robert Glasper.

Spalding has performed quite a few times in Philadelphia; the highlight for her was her performance at the Electric Factory during her Radio Music Society Tour. Also, she had a great mentor in legendary guitarist Jef Lee Johnson, who hailed from Philadelphia. Johnson served as her electric guitarist and backing vocalist prior to his death in 2013. It was he who encouraged her to take even more musical risks and try new things out on her next album.

Speaking of her new album, Spalding revealed to me that her new album would be released in early 2015. As for the sound of the new project, she was mum, leaving it all up to one’s imagination. Each album has been different from the last, and we should expect Spalding to reveal a new layer of her musical journey on the next one. Until then, Philadelphia fans will have enough to sink their teeth into with her Keswick Theatre performance, which is sure to be a memorable one.

To purchase tickets for Esperanza Spalding’s Oct. 2 performance at the Keswick Theatre, visit


arts & culture, esperanza spalding, glenside, keswick theatre