Jazz Phenom Esperanza Spalding Returns to the City Where Her Career First Bloomed

The singer-bassist talks about her spontaneously conceived new album, the passing of two of her mentors and her undying love for the City of Roses.

Portland native Esperanza Spalding might have jumped onto the national radar by winning the infamously snake-bitten Best New Artist Grammy in 2011, but to this point, her career hardly seems cursed.

Since first shocking the music world at large and pissing off a nation of Beliebers seven years ago, the 33-year-old bassist and singer remains a prominent composer, band leader and educator, with six studio albums to her name and a gig as professor of the practice of music at Harvard. She's also crossed over to nonjazz audiences, starting with her 2016 funk-rock opus Emily's D+Evolution and continuing with her ambitious new album, Exposure, which she wrote and recorded in just 77 hours, live on the internet.

With Spalding returning to her hometown as part of the PDX Jazz Festival—where she'll play as part of a special tribute to late pianist and educator Geri Allen, alongside drummer Terri Lynne Carrington and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane—we reconnected to ask her about Exposure's whirlwind recording process, the passing of her mentor, Thara Memory, and her undying love for the Rose City.

Willamette Week: Your most recent album Exposure was written and recorded over three days while millions of people watched a live video feed of the process. What drove you to make a record in this way?

Esperanza Spalding: To expose whatever creative potentialities were lying unrealized inside of myself, and to expose the creative process as a performative art.

Do you feel like all the prying eyes were helpful, or was it more about the pressure of having such a limited time?

It just goes to show our sentiments around the creative process that limited time and audience translates into "pressure" and "prying eyes." Any performative art requires an audience, and all art happens within a time frame. So our performance link was 77 hours, and the performative art was creation. You can't fit an audience that large into a studio, so we just opened the window. Those viewers were the key ingredient to making the creation process a performative art.

Do you think that the recording process remains hidden from audiences in a lot of cases?

The artform we were exploring wasn't making a record, it was creating music, and the format that we chose was album-making. Dance is dance, but you could say, "OK, we're going to do a narrative dance" or "We're going to do a dance on stage." What we were doing was creating. Everything that happened in there happened from blank. We came in unprepared, ready to discover what we wanted to create in real time. That was the performance. The performance was us discovering inspiration and completely building songs around these little inspirations that happened in real time.

I don't know that there's a lot of mystery around the writing process. I think there is a lot of fear for artists now around not being "dumb," or not being good enough, or not having a product that is viable in the art/commodity market. This was partly exposure of what we really have to give. There wasn't time for us to change it, to make it more solvent as a commodity, because it was a performance. I think creation is essentially what we're here to do as artists, so I wanted to make that front and center.

How did you feel coming out of this session compared to other records?

There was no middle-man, there was no money. Walking out, it was done. Walking out, I gave what I came to give, for that project. I felt a much deeper sense of camaraderie with my co-creators. Anybody watching could tell we were really depending on each other. We would each walk away from our own creative offerings and come back 12 hours later and discover how it had been changed by the other people in the room. And there wasn't time to undo that, so we would just picked up creating and responding to what we found. I felt like, "Yeah, that's me, and that's done. This hasn't been tampered with." What people are going to receive is a true picture of me as a creator.

To just leave it be like that is very interesting.

The performance was the performance. Maybe you entered late. Maybe you're an actor and you missed a line, but the totality of the performance that just happened was what it was. And it was great because we started from the top to the bottom, and had an exchange with other people in the room. It's a similar sense of completion that we lived through something together that was spontaneous and real for that time we were together. And now it's the conclusion of that performance and we move on to what's next. For me, anyway—a person who often has a lot of extraneous signifiers attached to my name and my craft—it felt very cathartic to be in a recording space where there were no other layers. There wasn't time for me to talk about what we were creating.

People say so many things about what any artist does. It felt really good to have a space to just make, and deliver it directly to people before they could hear anything about it. We've all experienced it, when you hear people speaking about you in a way that's incorrect. People say I'm a cello player, or a pop musician—those are just topical minor ones. It's surely ego, but it's frustrating when you have something to give, and before a person can receive it they've been told misinformation about what you're handing them. It felt like a good purge.

You're performing at the PDX Jazz Festival as part of a tribute to late pianist-educator Geri Allen. How has her passing affected the way you perform and think about her music?

You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone, they say. That's really true in the case of Geri. I think it was a catalyst for a deeper investigation into her body of work. And I feel like we're all reeling, not just in the aftermath of her passing, but this kind of onrush of revelation about the body of work that she created. I feel like, goddamn, there were so many things I could have talked to her about and asked her about and picked her brain about. And I didn't, because it just seems like you have all the time in the world to do that with a great mind like hers. It's really changed the way that I use time with the masters that I have the privilege to work with. Now when I'm with these greats, I'm asking them all kinds of questions.

That trio that we had with [drummer Terri Lyne Carrington] and her was really life-changing for me. I didn't realize it, because it was something that was there, of course, even when it wasn't active. Now it's like, "Wow, there's nobody like that to play that." Beyond just musicianship, but also as a woman. I know there is a lot of talk about that, and it's beaten pretty hard right now, but experientially it was so unique and I haven't experienced anything like that since. Because all of the fences could come down, and we could just experience it as sisters and family.

What's really beautiful now, as we play with these other musicians who've been influenced by her or have worked closely with here, we sort of feel how her absence has changed their approach. She was this kind of quiet mystic powerhouse, and I feel other musicians coming in as the third person—that had been Geri—and they're, I feel, exploring that kind of archetypal space in a new way, because we're all aware of her absence now. So we're curious about what it was she was occupying energetically.

We change depending on who we're playing with, and [playing with Geri] everything was allowed. Any little inclination or mistake, or you heard a sound or a tension, you could just throw anything and she'd just pick it up and she'd dance with it. There are other players that do that, but with that trio, that was the mode of communication we were exploring every time we played. There was no judgement, and it was all propagation. Ravi [Coltrane], who will be playing with Teri and me, he talks about Geri as the first person who really welcomed him into the music community in New York. She was totally welcoming and nourishing. She heard that thing in Ravi and she invited him to play, gave him one of his first gigs.

How did Portland's jazz scene prepare your for the leap to bigger, more saturated cities like Boston and New York?

That's kind of a myth about New York and Boston—just because there are more jazz musicians in number doesn't mean that the culture is more supportive to the experience. I was actually really surprised getting to Boston and New York that most educational environments had a price tag on them, and I hadn't experienced that in Portland. I had experienced this like, "Oh you care about the music? All right, let's do it," all the time. It felt like a really open-source environment. When I got to Boston or New York it felt like everyone was too busy to play or to jam, and in Boston it was like, oh, you had to pay. Except for a few spaces, there wasn't really an equivalent to Wally's in Portland. That was kind of a shock. "Oh shit, you can't be up in here unless you can really bring the fire.'"

Except for a couple teachers in Portland that said some dumb shit to me about being a girl playing the bass, it was the first time that people were making a big deal about my gender. I started in the Chamber Music Society of Oregon, and the two directors were women, and most of the people in the orchestra were women, and the teachers were women—it felt very co-ed. It felt like that in the jazz scene too. [Portland saxophonist] Mary-Sue Tobin was one of my first homies. It didn't feel like it was a big thing. And then I got to Boston and it was following me around like a brick, it was right in my face, and then it kept going.

Whatever that open-source, gender neutral culture was in Portland, though it didn't prepare me for the East Coast. I expected that to be normal. And so it changed the way that I navigated the Northeast, and I think the way I navigated music in general. To try to make it a commodity already seemed foreign to me because of my experience in Portland. I felt like in Portland as soon as you announced you wanted to do music, everybody was a resource. Maybe because I was walking into an educational environment that was really expensive, and most of the teachers were wrapped up in that environment, it was expected that if you wanted information you had to pay for it. And that was really the biggest culture shock. The second culture shock was to hear teachers and colleagues just calling out the fact that I was a girl all the time—I was like, "You guys have never seen a woman before?"

Do you still feel a connection to Portland?

We just don't even have time to see each other, that's the sad thing. Last time I was doing some talk at Reed and [pianist] Dan Gaynor came down with his family and we were just talking shit about everything in the world, and about how we used to play together. I never see Mary-Sue either, but it's always like time hasn't passed. Before Thara [Memory] passed, every time I came to town I'd go hang with him and we'd talked about who was doing what. Everybody's busy. Usually I'm there for a couple days—my family lives in Hillsboro, so I don't get time to see everyone or to play, but the fondness is there, the connection is there, for sure.

Thara passed last summer, shortly after being accused of sexual abuse by some of his former students. How did that affect you?

I don't know yet, but I loved him very much and he did so much for music in that town. I wouldn't be in music if it weren't for the Cultural Recreation Band, and he fought to make that happen with [musician] Greg McKelvey, and that probably saved the future lives of so many young people down in what used to be the hood. He was always a very close friend and mentor, so I was really upset, and I felt really devastated that [his] behavior didn't go addressed and healed earlier, whatever the seeds of that inappropriate behavior were in his life.

I feel like it's an invitation for us to think about how we can call out and educate individuals who are behaving inappropriately so that it doesn't destroy the community. Because him doing that, and it accumulating to the point that it did, and him being removed from the music education scene, that destroyed a community, and I don't think it had to happen like that. I feel like all of us being educated on what's appropriate and inappropriate, to be able to call it out with compassion before it escalates is really important, so that we don't just villainize and remove people who still have a lot to give.

From where I sit I don't know all the details. I had a really positive, nourishing experience with him, and the people that he encouraged and activated to get involved in music education. Imagine if the first time anybody spotted him saying something inappropriate or alluding to something inappropriate, somebody pulled him aside. Unfortunately, not everybody knows, they don't truly understand. There's a lot of versions of where ignorance can lead to violence and to abuse and trauma, and I just hope that he can be a lesson to all of us to call things out and to help people understand what's appropriate and inappropriate. It's a loss on so many levels, and it's painful because there's real pain and trauma that he caused. It's a whole person who like all of us needs guidance. I hope we all can learn from this, so that it's not just a structure that falls down in flames.

Is there anyone you're looking forward to seeing at the festival while you're here?

I don't know who else is on the bill because I've been living under a rock for the last month. I stay out in Hillsboro, so once I get down in the city, I'll pop around to the big venues and the little venues and see who's playing, hopefully with my girls.

Have you been to Portland since Jimmy Mak's closed?

Yeah. Everybody's in search of the upgrade. What do you do when you can't commodify something anymore? How can you make [jazz] available to audiences? How can you create a space audiences can come engage with it if they don't already love it? We have kind of a brand-name overhaul to do, I feel, with the brand name and the experience.

Do you feel that's possible?

Anything's possible. I think people need to go investigate it more. If you think it's impossible, it's because you're not listening to all that's out here. Most businesses lead with the product that they're most sure will sell. Even at that level, any audience getting music that's titled jazz is hearing a very thin slice. That doesn't mean that's what's actually happening in the music. I think it's branding. [Jazz] requires an investigative art on behalf of the audience. That's part of what makes it fun. I just don't feel like that message is being clearly propagated.

SEE IT: Carrington-Coltrane-Spalding: Celebrating the Legacy of Geri Allen is at the Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, as part of the PDX Jazz Festival, on Thursday, Feb. 22. 7 pm. $39-$69. All ages. Get tickets here.

Top Picks for the PDX Jazz Festival’s Final Week

Kandinsky Effect

The French-American sax-bass-drums trio is named after one of the most famous 20th-century abstract artists, yet doesn't really traffic in abstraction. Their restrained, concise and evocative sound paintings should appeal to fans of modern jazz-rock fusionists like Kneebody or even the Bad Plus. Jack London Revue. 9 pm Wednesday, Feb. 21. $10. 21+.

George Colligan Trio, Ethan Iverson

Bad Plus founder Ethan Iverson will play a virtuosic solo set following a set from fellow hyper-creative pianist (and Portlander) George Colligan, whose hard-swinging trio includes legendary bassist Buster Williams and equally vaunted drummer Lenny White. Winningstad Theatre. 9:30 pm Thursday, Feb. 22. $33-$45. All ages.

Dr. Lonnie Smith Trio

The 75-year-old wizard of the jazz organ performs his soulful, groove-oriented works with a guitar-drums trio featuring two of New York's finest accompanists, guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Johnathan Blake. Winningstad Theatre. 9:30 pm Friday, February 23. Sold out. All ages.

Miles Electric Band

An 11-piece large ensemble featuring numerous Miles Davis alumni takes the stage at Revolution Hall, offering audiences a live glimpse of the late trumpet legend's bombastic (and underappreciated) final era. Revolution Hall. 7:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 24. $25-$55. All ages. 

Snarky Puppy, Banda Magda

Ever-changing, Grammy-winning, beat-jazz ensemble Snarky Puppy gets even larger tonight, as the dynamic group of virtuosos is joined by the multiethnic sounds of New York's Banda Magda quintet. Roseland Theater. 8:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 24. Sold out. All ages.

Jazz by 5

The closest thing to a supergroup at this year's PDX Jazz Festival features revered figures who gained wider fame not as band leaders but as sterling ensemble players. Jazz by 5's pedigree includes members of the Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis' legendary Kind of Blue band, and stands a better chance than most all-star bands of achieving the integrated interplay so crucial to memorable jazz. Revolution Hall. 7 pm Sunday, Feb. 25. $29-$59. All ages.

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