Bass is the Place: Jazz Star Esperanza Spalding Brings Her Special Birthday Tour to Playhouse Square

The bass isn't featured front and center in too many jazz compositions. So what drew multi-instrumentalist Esperanza Spalding to the instrument when she was a teenager?

"I would say spiritually or psychologically, I'm an airy person," she says via phone from Brooklyn where she was prepping for a short tour in celebration of her 30th birthday. "I'm really bubbly and flitty. I think one of the reasons why I'm attracted to the bass is that it's very grounding. It's low and solid and the anchor of the music. It's the lowest common denominator in the band. I love the challenge of it physically. Creative people will work with whatever is in their hands and that's what has remained in my hands. I think I stayed with it for spiritually grounding reasons."

Originally, Spalding taught herself to play violin. She then switched to guitar, clarinet and obo. Finally, while in high school, she settled on bass, which she studied formally while at Portland State University and Berklee College of Music. She released her debut, Junjo, in 2006, and the album quickly established her as a rising star. A favorite of President Obama, who asked her to play at his Nobel Peace Prize concert in 2009, she surprised everyone when she won a Grammy for Best New Artist in 2011. The award-winning album, 2010's Chamber Music Society, featured gorgeous ballads and gentle jazz tunes. Spalding says balancing the creative impulse with the commercial impulse has become a tricky matter, especially as her popularity has continued to soar.

"When your livelihood is tied with your passion, it gets a little dangerous," she says. "Part of selling something means you are producing product that someone wants to pay for. When you're an artist, your passion can lead you in any direction. You don't know what the next inspiration will be. What can distinguish an artist from an entertainer is that an artist can serve the one master of their creative inspiration."

She readily admits there's a chance that no one will like what you do. That's a risk she's willing to take.

"It keeps you honest," she says. "Sometimes [for me] the creative challenge can be, 'I have this idea for a way I want to perform or play or the type of poetry or sound I want to mess with. How can I frame or present it in a way that other people will dig what I'm trying to say?' It's like being an editor. The filmmaker has this vision and captures the design and all this dialogue and puts it in a frame. The editor has to organize it in a way that the viewer will know what the hell the director wanted to say."

On 2012's Radio Music Society she loosens things up, delving into R&B on the opening track, "Radio Song," and letting her funk flag fly on "Black Gold." The album has been described as an accessible jazz album. Spalding says that most jazz artists strive to be accessible these days and dip into different genres.

"I think all jazz records that have come out in the last 10 years — unless they were expressly efforts to sound like period pieces — have elements of lots of other genres," she says. "I think my record was marketed in that way so people heard it that way. I wanted to play with those people and those songs. I wanted room to improvise. I did pose a question going into it. Is there a way to take these ideas and these players in a way it could end up on the radio? The answer was 'no' for that album. It was just a hypothesis. It was a fun hypothesis to work with. It was a challenge and a fun challenge to do it. I wanted everything to be fluid. The product is the album."

The album received plenty of accolades. But even if it didn't, Spalding says she was prepared to move on and continue to try out different experiments.

"[Not getting attention] can be a luxury too," she says. "Say you're a band or musician and you put out this record that doesn't make a big noise. In a way, you're almost freer to experiment with the next thing because nobody is waiting for you to do the next thing. However the cookie crumbles, it's all good if you're in the game to make some creative shit. It's like Duke Ellington said, it's always going to be a small demographic that wants to engage with highly creative stuff. The good news is that there's always a demographic of people who want you to hear you do some creative stuff."

Spalding, who considers a wide range of music to be influential, cites both Madonna and Ornette Coleman as inspirations.

"What I admire about Madonna is this ever emerging butterfly," she says. "Madonna [has an ability] to constantly re-emerge and redevelop. She always has a different sound and approach and philosophy. I think it's so incredible. That's badass and I really admire that. I admire the way Ornette Coleman heard something and just did it. He found like-minded spirits in his first and second band and they got on board with stuff that no one had heard and finding a community and market for this new music. Those are two extremes. I also deeply admire Wayne Shorter and David Bowie. I would add them in there too. Within them there is a common denominator that I really admire. It's like 'What if...' It's completing that sentence and owning it."

So what inspired the birthday tour and does she feel any trepidation about turning 30?

"I just thought it would be more fun than a party," she says. "I can spread the love that way too. I think [turning 30] is awesome. For women, that's a really significant age. It's a coming of age, so to speak, like a second adolescence where you step up to the next level of owning your shit."

Esperanza Spalding

7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 11, Connor Palace, 1615 Euclid Ave., 216-771-4444. Tickets: $10-$45,

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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