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Speaking With ... Esperanza Spalding 09.28.12

EsperanzSpalding | Phoby SandrLee;  Courtesy Montuno

Esperanza Spalding | Photo by Sandrin Lee; Courtesy of Montuno

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◆ 8 p.m. Oct 1-3

◆ City Winery,
100 W. Randolph

◆ Tickets, $55-$100

◆ (312) 733-9463;


Updated: September 27, 2012 12:43PM

She wowed PBS audiences in 2010 with an unforgettable performance on “Austin City Limits.” Last year, she became the first jazz artist to win the Grammy for best new artist, beating out odds-on favorite Justin Bieber (who could forget his less-than-happy face at hearing her name called out?). Esperanza Spalding, a fiery Welsh/Native-American/African-American/Hispanic instrumentalist-vocalist who could navigate the double bass with a passion and command far beyond her then 26 years, had arrived.

With a repertoire that boasts collaborations with everyone from Herbie Hancock and Alicia Keys to Lalah Hathaway and Q-Tip, Spalding is on the road in support of her fourth studio album, the chart-topping and richly pop-influenced “Radio Music Society” (Heads Up International/Concord Music Group). She brings her 11-piece jazz ensemble to City Winery for three shows, Oct. 1-3. We talked to the Grammy winner about making music.

Question: This new album was originally slated to be a double album with “Chamber Music Society,” true? What changed your mind?

Esperanza Spalding: Yes. It was a fun idea, but it was delusional, just seeing how much work both of the projects were. Not to mention how would you tour two different projects simultaneously? Finally I decided that would just be a nightmare organizationally.

Q. Turns out the albums are quite different in tone and scope, making them two very distinct properties. Did that influence your decision?

ES: I don’t think about projects like that. I always have this forward momentum; all I see is what I have to do next. The process of making “Chamber Music” and the experience of performing it, I can remember specific moments, but it seems very long ago and far away. Being on stage with “Chamber Music Society” we all felt like: Can we create a space where everyone will hear what we’re doing? It would be a quiet room so people would lean in and listen to what we were doing subtly on the stage. With “Radio Music” I don’t want people to feel they have to find the right line to listen to. I want people to come in and not care what will happen. Get a drink and feel good.

Q. You take time out from your tour to work with another heady group of musicmakers. Tell me about working with Us Five, Joe Lovano’s quintet that features you, James Weidman, Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela.

ES: Well, after [a recent] gig with them, [someone] said to me how do you come down after a show like that? [Laughing] And that pretty much says it all. This is Joe Lovano’s project, two drummers a piano player and myself. We’re doing music from his “Folk Art” and “Bird Songs” albums mostly, and some other stuff. Joe is one of the most creative and powerful voices in jazz right now. Very few ensembles have that masterful fluidity and freedom these guys have. It just brings out the best in me.

Q. You support various human rights and conservation groups through some of your music, including “Land of the Free” and “Endangered Species” featured on the new album.

ES: “Endangered Species” was a tribute to Earth Day and so it benefits the Amazon Aid Foundation, which hires local residents in Peru to protect one acre of the Amazon so it won’t be mined for gold or lumber. The Amazon is the lungs of the earth, so protecting that river protects all of us. And last fall I worked with the Innocence Project, and that led to the song “Land of the Free,” which came from a story I saw on the news about a man who was found innocent after 30 years in prison. (Editor’s note: $5 from sales of Spalding’s two tour T-shirts and on-tour CDs go to TIP; $5 from the sale of her Endangered Species T-shirt goes to the AAF).

Q. Ten years ago, could you have imagined how far your music would take you?

ES: I think 10 years ago I thought I’d be a much stronger player [Laughs]. In the past few years I’ve slowed down my practicing a little bit. But the good news is things I wanted to achieve in terms of projects and places I wanted to go I’ve been able to do. Things I barely dreamed of 10 years ago have come true. I got to play with Herbie (Hancock), work with Wayne Shorter, Prince and Stevie Wonder.

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