Esperanza Spalding is 34-years-old, but her resume reads like a musician’s twice her age: Grammy Awards, a professorship at Harvard, invitations to the (Obama) White House. But as Spalding states clearly on her website, “Fuck accolades.” That’s not what she’s here for. And despite 15 years of building her reputation as one of the world’s most celebrated jazz bassists and vocalists, Spalding suspects that a decade from now, her Wikipedia entry may regard her as far more than a jazz musician.
Spalding performs at Spoleto in support of 12 Little Spells, her late-2018 concept album that associates sounds with parts of the body, including grooving tracks like “Thang (hips)” and “You Have to Dance (feet).” But before releasing that album, Spalding experienced a nearly two-year feeling of disconnection from the bass.
“It wasn’t that I got bored,” she explains, on the phone from her home in Hillsboro, Ore. “I wanted to detangle what my love for the instrument was and my burden of obligation to the music or to the men I felt I needed to prove myself to — I wasn’t crazy about how I was feeling when I’d get up to play with these jazz masters.”
That slump led Spalding to reevaluate her role as a bass player: “It goes much deeper than the notes you play or how much facility you have — it’s like an archetype in a family or community or work group, and all the other layers of how people saw me on the instrument, or how I saw myself, were clouding my ability to ground down into that role.”
After stepping back, Spalding realized that her blessing as a bass player was being “contaminated with all this bullshit.” She re-approached the instrument in a new light, as the “sacred feminine, holding everything down but without any limits.”
“The bass is something solid that you know is there. You know it’s got your back and it’s holding the time and holding the changes, and everyone else is free to explore, and you know they’re not going to fly off into space and get lost,” she explains. “It’s like gravity under your feet. You want gravity, as long as it doesn’t feel like it’s holding you back, and that’s the kind of bass player I want to be.”
When it’s your name on the tickets, it’s easy to see how a bass player might wander from the pocket. And on stage at the Cistern, Spalding will certainly display her virtuosity — “There will be moments of solo bass and voice, I need that opportunity to reopen my palate” — but she’ll also be providing the foundation for Marcus Gilmore (drums), Matthew Stevens (guitar), and Morgan Guerin (bass, keys, sax) to traverse the sonic cosmos as they explore the Spells.
Spalding enjoys seeing how the collection of songs literally moves people as the spells encourage attention to different parts of the body.
“If someone asks me to bring my awareness to my hip bones — to my hip socket, to the place where the top of my femur becomes a joint and settles through the cartilage into the socket of my hip — by somebody saying that to me, my sensation becomes focused around that area; it may even feel a little bit warm,” she explains. “It has a therapeutic effect.”
Spalding’s Spoleto appearances are two of just three performances on her 2019 tour calendar. She even gave up this spring semester teaching at Harvard for her biggest project yet — writing the libretto and performing in Iphigenia, an opera written by saxophonist Wayne Shorter, one of her musical heroes. Acclaimed architect Frank Gehry designed the set, and Penny Woolcock will direct.
“It is by far the most challenging, rewarding, amazing, best thing I’ve ever been a part of. By far,” Spalding emphasizes. “It’s like watching the most resplendent, alien terrestrial flower bloom out of thin air. It’s incredible to witness. I’m discovering aspects of my creative powers that had never been challenged in this way to emerge.”
After five years of casually working on the project with Shorter, Spalding realized that to give the opera the realization it deserves required her full-time commitment, a decision that’s transformed the way she sees herself in the world and her role as a bass player.
“I feel like I’ve been a little baby (before now). I’ve been a little baby creator,” she admits. “I’m getting my ass kicked so hard and growing up so fast by this process of taking responsibility for the creative work, and being required to work with a team as an equal, to create the right kind of community/environment/work posse to manifest these creative ideas at a high level.”
Spalding compares the Iphigenia process to her work as an advocate for wild wolf populations in the Western U.S.
“When you take the thing that scares you out of the environment, you might feel more comfortable, but chances are, you’re not evolving — you’re not growing or being challenged,” she explains. “I feel like (Iphigenia) has pushed me to become the type of creator that I always had the potential to be. I had figured out how to do something (bass) and I was good at it, and now I don’t know how to do any of the shit I’m doing, and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. I feel like my capital/clout/presence/creative powers are serving so much more than just my little name on a marquee and my little vision. Now, they’re sublimated and harnessed to help expand and explore the vision of my mentor and my heroes. It’s a mutual dynamic — their brilliance has a better chance of expanding me, because it’s not all about what I think it’s supposed to be.”
In short, Esperanza Spalding the bass player was a caterpillar — a brilliant, glowing larva, worthy of celebration and already perfect in its form. But with Iphigenia, she’s found a cocoon and is emerging, inspired and transcendent, in this very moment.