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Esperanza Spalding: All That Jazz

Esperanza Spalding is no longer jazz’s best-kept secret, with a Grammy for Best New Artist added to her accolade collection. But has mainstream acclaim turned up the heat on the nimble-fingered upright bassist?

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Interview by ?uestlove // Photography by Josh DeHonney // Styling by Darius Baptist // Makeup by Jackie Sanchez/Koh Gen Do // Hair products provided by MIZANI True Textures // Location courtesy of GunBar

Following her win for Best New Artist at the 2011 Grammy Awards, jazz musician Esperanza Spalding almost gave into temptation to capitalize on the victory. The jazz maestro, known for her masterful abilities on the upright bass and milky vocals (as well as her untamed coif), was convinced that her fourth studio album, Radio Music Society, should be geared towards pop audiences, but it took working with just the right people to help her realize that she needed to stay true to herself, making casual, warm music that didn’t buckle to mainstream pressure.

The resulting album, which follows 2010’s Chamber Music Society, is a reflection of where Spalding stands in her career: joyous, soulful and as sharp as ever. YRB paired one of her earliest supporters, The Roots’ bandleader ?uestlove, to grill her about everything from beating out Justin Bieber for the Best New Artist trophy to what it means to be operating at the forefront of mainstream consciousness.

?uestlove: First, let me say congratulations on your continuing journey – most people say success, but I feel every day is a new level for you… After all was said and done [on your first album], did you feel the need to do a 180 and try new ideas? What was the direction of this album? Did you feel you accomplished what you wanted to do with Chamber and now there’s a new direction you wanted to go in? What did you want to challenge this time around?

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Esperanza: Well, actually, I conceived Chamber Music Society and Radio Music Society at the same time. I thought of them as sort of diametric opposite twins. Chamber Music Society was the introvert of the family, and the extroverted child was Radio Music Society, but they came from the same parent! ?uestlove: You’re able to flip the switch with that much ease, where you wear one hat one day and create one type of music, and the next day you wear another hat?

Esperanza: Well, this music has been a work in progress over the last three to four years. I mean, I’m not thinking, “Ok, now I’m in my Chamber Music vibe.” The compositions that ultimately ended up being on Chamber Music Society, they were sketches in varying states of being done. So then, as I finished each song, I put the polishing touches on it, really catering it to the Chamber Music Society sound – and the same thing with all the compositions that ended up on Radio Music Society. When I’m working on one individual song – I may have been working on Chamber Music Society yesterday – but it’s like I’m imagining a sound or intention of the record, so then in the detail polishing for that given song, I’m directing it towards the overall sound of the record.

?uestlove: So I gotta say, the first time I ever won a Grammy I thought it was by fluke and I kinda quickly accepted it before they had a recount to realize that Dr. Dre and Eminem deserve this award instead of The Roots… So I’ve never really enjoyed that moment, but last year, even though I won three times, I’ll say my happiest moment was actually watching you win Best New Artist. I was literally in the aisle and dancing – I was a dancing fool in my chair as if it was my award. Has life been much different now that you’ve won Best New Artist? Do you feel like, oh I gotta braid my hair now and wear sunglasses?

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