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Nine Songs
esperanza spalding

The 2023 edition of North Sea Jazz Festival takes place in Rotterdam this weekend. Alan Pedder speaks to this year’s artist-in-residence esperanza spalding about the music that moves her.

07 July 2023, 17:00 | Words by Alan Pedder

As artist-in-residence for this year's North Sea Jazz Festival, which kicks off today in Rotterdam, five-time Grammy winner esperanza spalding has been cultivating a suitably interactive programme of events that complements the festival's impressive line-up.

Alongside trailblazing elders like Mavis Staples, Bill Frisell, Tom Jones and Buddy Guy, this year's edition includes contemporary brilliance from the likes of Róisín Murphy, Little Simz, Yaya Bey, Loyle Carner and big-hitter Stormzy.

“I had a dream about it last night, which was really weird,” spalding tells me over the phone between rushed bites of her lunch. She’s in her hometown of Portland, Oregon these days, having moved back to the city during the pandemic, and on a busy schedule to get everything prepared in time. Over the course of the festival, she'll be pulling together three separate strands of work – a performance with pianist Fred Hersch on the Friday, a ‘co-musicking lab’ with three special collaborative workshops on the Saturday, and new work with the New York-based Antonio Brown Dance company on the Sunday.


“I’m excited!” she says. “There’s a lot of anticipation and curiosity, and I think that’s the point, because the work we do is always about preparing and then surrendering to the moment. I’m curious what shapes things are going to take as we move into all three of those chapters. With the Antonio Brown Dance collaboration, we’ve been talking about it for years but we’re still in such a state of exploration and evolution. I don’t know where we will end up, but where we started was so beautiful.”

The co-musicking workshops are part of spalding’s broader Songwrights Apothecary Lab (S.A.L.) project, an ongoing initiative exploring various avenues of healing through a range of music-based practices. The first three labs resulted in the structured experimentation of 2021’s Songwrights Apothecary Lab, which won spalding her most recent Grammy. But, as she makes clear, the co-musicking aspect is something very different.

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“These workshops are an invitation to the festival goers to compose in real time, in a very responsive way,” she explains. “It asks that people trust themselves musically and trust everyone else in the room musically. It's often harder for musicians to let go of the things that they have practiced and to actually show up in a very open and responsive way. It’s a really expansive space to enter and be like, ‘Oh, now I get to surrender all the ways that I’m used to musicking.’ Then it’s like, ‘Okay, fine, what else comes out when I’m responding to others in this very immediate way?’”

Spalding can get deeply academic about her craft, but there’s a fizzing energy and expressiveness about her that makes our conversation fly. In discussing her Nine Songs, she notes in advance that her responses to the music aren’t always easily explained. “Most of what brings me into a particular song or piece is so far from my conscious, thinking mind,” she says. “All the pieces that I’ve chosen here are ones that I feel moved by. Like, they affect me deeply. They are songs that I can sense interdimensional breath through.”

“I know you probably want more variation in my responses for each song, but I feel like this is really an invitation for other people to meet this music when they need it. And maybe it won’t be that particular song on that particular recording by these composers, but when they meet it either there will be a sense of intimacy with the spirit or the character or the aesthetic or the textures of the music, or there won’t be, and that’s okay too.”

“Petrushka” by Igor Stravinsky

ESPERANZA SPALDING: This song is a spell. I don’t know what it’s doing, specifically, but I know that every time I hear it I feel altered. I feel my nervous system shifting, and not just on a pure enjoyment level. I love every theme. I love every transition. I love every dissonance and clash.

It’s just such a powerful and perfect piece of music. And what I mean by perfect is that it’s complete. It just feels like it touches on all the colours that are possible, except maybe for improvisation. I’m sure that there was improvisation involved in his process of discovering the melodies. I know that a lot of them come from folk songs, but the way he put it all together is so inspired.

It’s rare for someone who doesn’t have a classical music life to get to play their favourite classical pieces, but I had that privilege when I was in my first year of college. I was studying to be a classical bassist, and of course you were required to play in an orchestra – that’s your major – and that year, we did “Petrushka”. So, for however many months, I got to be with that piece all the time, and that’s how I came to love it, through getting to know it from the inside. And yeah, I was 16 when I was at Portland State University, so that’s 20-something years that it’s been in my system.

BEST FIT: Do you have a favourite recording of this piece that we can share with the readers?

Actually, my favourite recording of this piece is my bootleg from when the New York Phil played it, but if we’re talking about things you can find on YouTube, you can use the Pierre Boulez recording if you want, that’s fine.

“Blame Me” by L’Rain

ESPERANZA SPALDING: Somebody introduced me to L’Rain through a live performance that she did online, maybe with NPR or something, and I was just so taken with her as a composer and as an instrumentalist. In that live show, there were clearly songs but there was also this on-the-spot composing she was doing with all these effects and pedals and loopers and samples through her guitar. So, yeah, I was taken with her musicianship first, and then I went and checked out her albums.

Actually, the first thing I heard from the album that “Blame Me” is on [2021’s Fatigue] was the song “Suck Teeth”, and that’s really the one that caught me and drew me into the record. But then as I was listening to it again, “Blame Me” is the one that I thought of in the context of this interview.

“A Minor Complex” by Leo Genovese

BEST FIT: Leo is someone you've worked with a huge amount in your career. Why have you chosen this particular song of his?

ESPERANZA SPALDING: Because it’s the best, and I’m proud of being a part of it. I’m proud that he invited me to be there and sing on it and I’m proud of what was made. I just feel so grateful to be affiliated with this song being out there in the world.

I feel like this song is such a showcase of his distinctiveness and his voice as a composer. You know, as a player, he can really paint. He can give you so much density but without losing the clarity or something. It’s hard to describe. But I just love this song. It kind of haunts me, actually. I’m always humming it here and there.

I mean, I love everything Leo does. This album is incredible, but it’s just a drop in the bucket of his work. Like, he makes so many records I can’t even keep count. But they’re not on Spotify, you know? He’s not efforting to promote his prolificness.

I’ve been on other projects he’s done, we’ve played so many gigs together, and all kinds of things. So really it’s a case of if I have an invitation to make music with him, I’m absolutely going to do it if I have time. I think he’s one of the greatest musicians of our time. I think for anyone, whatever your passion or pursuit or craft is, if you get the chance to practice it with somebody who’s a master, you’re not going to say no.

You've also recorded as a duo called IRMA + LEO for a benefit record a couple of years ago.

Yeah, we have a duo project. We just haven't had time to do anything with it yet, but for sure it’s coming.

“Pegasus" by Wayne Shorter

ESPERANZA SPALDING: In case there’s somebody reading this who doesn’t know about Wayne Shorter – like, I don’t know who you are, but in case you exist on Planet Earth and you’re reading this – you need to know about this phenomenon that he brought into existence of having an improvising ensemble melded with an orchestra. There had never been a thing like that before. He’s the philosophical leader of the ensemble and the full composer and orchestrator of the symphonic, written music.

I mean, it’s so unbelievable, so far beyond anything that had happened in that realm, and I always want to bring people to it. I always want to give people the chance not just to know about it but to feel its powerful field of sensation and sound and texture. It’s just such a gift, to have access to and immerse oneself in what Wayne and his collaborators created and offered forth. It's just unbelievably healthful and generous in blessings, you know?

BEST FIT: In your email, you specified two versions: one from the album Without A Net and the other from EMANON. Do you prefer one over the other depending on a certain mood?

No, you should listen to both. They're very different, of course, but I just think that it's good to hear both.

And how did you personally discover Wayne's music?

I know I heard him as a teenager but I don’t remember exactly how or when. There are a lot of jazz musicians here in Portland, and there was a lot of exchange going on at the time that I was coming up in music here, so in some kind of way – maybe at a jam session or at a dinner or something – I definitely heard him. I think somebody introduced me to Weather Report around that time, but I couldn't hear it. Like, my brain wasn't evolved enough or whatever. So I didn’t spend much time with his music until I was a bit older.

Incredibly, you had the opportunity to compose an opera together with him, which you also starred in, not long before he passed away. How was that experience for you?

Indescribable in a way that we don’t have enough time to go into here [laughs]. But I wouldn’t say that I starred in the opera. Okay, I had a role in it, but I think anybody could be in that role. And I only did that because he asked me to. I didn’t want to do it, and to be honest I didn’t want to write the libretto either. I just wanted to help make it happen, because it was so important that a person like Wayne Shorter wanted to write an opera.

My original role was as creative producer, just trying to get the team together, but then everything just grew and grew and grew. He was petitioning me to write the libretto and I finally gave in. Then he was petitioning me to be in the thing, and again I finally gave in. I’m so grateful, of course, but it was really difficult. The redeeming factor was having all those years to work so closely with and learn with Wayne, but I don’t think I would do that again as an undertaking.

In which ways was it challenging?

It's challenging because this arts funding world has this fucked up, ageist, classist, racist attitude. It’s slightly getting better in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement here in the United States, but no one would fund this opera at the time. It was like pulling teeth or like looking for diamonds in a river. It was ridiculous. It took a ridiculous amount of effort just to get this global treasure the support to write this opera.

It just wasn’t fair, and it really opened my eyes to how sick and commercial and classist the arts world is. You wouldn’t believe the things that people said to our faces, not thinking that they were being classist and racist and ageist. So I guess that a big wake-up call for me and it turned me into this slightly radicalised advocate for arts funding reform. Maybe that’s another benefit of the process, but it shouldn’t have been that hard. For someone like Wayne Shorter who had done so much at that point in his life, I feel like the opera world should have been leaping up to meet him, you know?

I bow to and celebrate everybody who recognised it for what it was early on in the process and committed to it, even we couldn’t get the funding to finish. We did, finally, but we had these champions on our side like Jeff Tang, Mara Isaacs and Cath Brittain, and everyone at places like ArtsEmerson, The Kennedy Center and the Broad Stage. Every one of those people spent way more hours than they got paid for to make it happen. That was also a redeeming factor, that these people who were ready to throw down for this project… I told you that you didn’t want to go into the details! [laughs]

“The Printmakers” by Geri Allen

BEST FIT: This music was released in 1983, the year you were born. How did you discover Geri’s music?

ESPERANZA SPALDING: Through playing with her. Before that, her name was kind of around. I knew that she was epic, but I hadn't really checked out her music on my own. Then Terri Lyne Carrington had the idea of putting the ACS trio together: Terri, Geri and myself. At that point I was like, ‘Oh my god, what is this? What is this portal?’

After Geri passed, I went even deeper into her world. I do think she's one of the most underrated composers and piano players of her generation, if not the most underrated, for what she’s contributed and for all the people that she’s influenced. She was a guiding light.

Maybe it was partly that her energy had to be diffused to take care of her three kids, which again speaks to the sexism, classism and caste-ism of the industry. I just feel like, when she was alive, she was not uplifted the way that she deserved to be.

And why this particular piece, “Printmakers”?

It's such an epic. I mean, any one of her pieces is full and a whole world, but I feel like this one is such a great showcase of her mastery and prowess. She had such a different compositional voice. The whole Printmakers album is crazy. She has another really good album called Home Grown. It’s a solo piano album and that’s one’s like, woooo! It’s very, very, very different and special. And again, a real showcase of her gifts.

“The Blessing” by Ornette Coleman

BEST FIT: You've always said that Ornette Coleman has been such a huge inspiration for you. Not just musically, but in terms of how he conducted his career. Can you tell me a bit more about that and how you’ve held him up as a role model, in a way?

ESPERANZA SPALDING: Yeah, I mean, the more I accept about the reality and the history of the country I was born in, the more and more I appreciate people like Ornette Coleman. I mean, it's impossible to fully grasp what it meant for this grown man with a family – this Black man from the South – to choose to put his creative vision first. Only he and the people he came up around can fully grasp that, because it was such a different time and the social contexts were so different.

I think for him to have made that life choice is completely radical. It flies in the face of hundreds of years of programming that says someone like him doesn’t have a right to their own life. They don’t have a right to use their life for anything other than serving capitalism and white supremacy. So for him to say ‘No, I’m not owed to the system, I’m not owed to the structure, I have a right to be what I am,’ and to put that front and centre and dedicate all the hours of his waking life to bringing that out is so radical.

I know that, for a time, he worked as a carpenter when he wasn’t being paid for his musical gifts, and that was seriously challenging physical labour. This was before all the electric tools that we have today, so for him to, in the margins of all that labour, still create the work that he created is impossibly deep and original and liberatory. I feel that power of spirit and personality and life choice travelling through the music, and I think that the music itself can activate that in your DNA. Like, it’s frequentially stored in what he wrote.

I hope more people look into the history of his life and into the history of what was happening, socio-politically, in the time that he was born and grew up in. It’s the whole model that’s inspiring, not just the music. You know, I think Terri talks about this a lot, that particularly with Black jazz musicians, there’s often this kind of trend of almost extracting their musicianship and what they contributed musically and isolating it from their personal, social, familial, geographical and political context, as if they’re not intricately linked and informed by each other.

Rarely do I feel like I hear much about the context in which Ornette Coleman was doing all this. Even just imagining what kind of force and what kind of personal power it would take for someone to choose that path might give a clue to the kind of energy that you hear coming out of the music. Like, if you had to cultivate that power just to be able to pick up your saxophone and not have to do god-knows-what in terms of the work that was available for a Black man from Texas in his early twenties. Then if you put that in your compositions, if you put that in your band, that's a medicinal gift to humanity, for sure.

Do you remember the first time you heard the Something Else!!!! album and how it made you feel?

Oh, really, I don't remember. Again, probably in Portland sometime in my teenage years. I also was in an ensemble that played his music, led by a wonderful trombonist named Jeff Galindo, and that was really a chance to deep dive into it and play his music from the inside. To get to play that music over the course of half a year or whatever was, woooo, just blessings on blessings.

And why have you chosen this particular song from that record?

Oh, it's just one of my favourite songs by him. Maybe because it’s one you can sing, you know? The other ones can be really hard to sing. Like, if you don't have access to a music device and you just want to hear it, you can just hear it on the inside and kind of hum it to yourself.

“Come Live with Me, Angel” by Marvin Gaye

ESPERANZA SPALDING: I love this song. Especially that whole ending vamp, wooo! I don’t think he wrote it, but that’s the jam. I mean, I don’t know what to say about it. It’s just one of those songs that you have to play and then all words become futile [laughs].

BEST FIT: Okay, so let's go broader. What does Marvin Gaye mean to you as an artist?

It's not easy to have to dance and sing for a bunch of white people who don't see you as fully human, and he did that for years. It's hard for many of us to reckon with what it is to have to go up to these gatekeepers who don’t see you as fully human, you know?

I’ve watched early videos of Marvin Gaye performing on these little variety shows and people are being so infantilising and patronising towards him on the interview couch, but he just bears it with such grace and poise. Then I just think about this turn that he took where he’s like, ‘No, no, I have to say what I need to say to my people.’ And, again, making that choice takes such personal power and such surrender, because you don’t know what’s going to happen to you. It’s like a death warrant for some people. To be like, ‘No, I’m not playing that game, I’m free’ – those are fighting words. Especially in that culture at that time.

Again, I feel like whatever Marvin Gaye had to cultivate internally was so powerful and it permeates the music. I feel that from Geri Allen as well, the personal power that she had as a woman and as a mother. Like, there are pictures of her playing a festival with a baby strapped on her back. But it’s not the power that is interesting. It’s not like I am idolising them because they are powerful. It’s more like considering what it took for them to commit to doing what they did, that what we get to hear for basically free at this point in time.

I think that’s what Ornette and Marvin and Terri Lyne and Wayne and L’Rain and all the others have in common. What we’re receiving is like the concentrated gift of what they had to cultivate on the inside just to get what they were carrying on the outside and make it hearable.

I remember when your album Radio Music Society came out, a lot of people compared it with What's Going On. Did that filter through to you? How did you feel about that?

Well, I disagreed. But that's okay.

“Sì, Mi Chiamano Mimì” by Giacamo Puccini (as performed by Mirella Freni)

ESPERANZA SPALDING: There is an interesting story behind [the libretto to La Bohème] in that the librettist nearly lost his mind trying to write it. But it’s actually this song that interested me. I heard it in college, in a music history class. The theme haunted me but I forgot the name. Then, during my season of studying opera, I came across it again and found many versions, but this performance struck me more than the rest.

People talk about how, in opera, time is slowed down, which is true. But that’s not the end of the story, because the most masterful opera performers have to make it not seem like time is slowed down. And this goddess right here, in this clip, sings the most masterful version that I have ever seen. Here is a woman completely embracing the fact that, yes, opera slows down time, but she uses every millisecond of the slow time so you feel like you’re also at that pace.

Her performance in this is crazy, and her voice is phenomenal. I know she’s lip synching to the song in the video, and that’s fine because it’s from a film, but it is really her singing.

“Tarde” by Milton Nascimento

[spalding has chosen to let this last song speak for itself.]

The NN North Sea Jazz Festival takes place in Rotterdam from Friday 7 July to Sunday 9 July.

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