Esperanza Spalding Makes the Summer Pops

Spalding joins the San Diego Symphony for a performance on August 20

For her latest project, Grammy-award winning musician Esperanza Spalding (2011 Best New Artist) combines poetry, motion, narrative and an ongoing personal examination into a sprawling work titled "Emily’s D+ Evolution." In a special collaboration with the San Diego Symphony, Spalding will expand this latest work with an orchestral touch. I caught up with Esperanza (whose middle name just happens to be Emily) to see how this idea evolved.

Robert Bush: Can you describe your new project so that our readers -- many of whom will be cheering you on -- have an idea what to expect?
Esperanza Spalding: Emily represents a certain aspect of me that I enjoy getting in touch with to explore some additional aspects of performance, incorporated into my vision as an artist. But even if you didn’t know any of that, or know who I was, you could still come to the performance and you would hear really great songs, which have a lot of energy. The music is really centered around the poems -- it’s poetry based, and some of it is performance based. We’re working on staging the songs as we sing them, and down in San Diego, you’ll hear us with a full orchestra. That’s the best I can describe it right now.

RB: I saw an interview earlier this year where you said you weren’t sure who Emily was. Are you any closer to figuring that out?
ES: I think we surprise ourselves sometimes, with our capacities, our qualities, and it’s a similar experience with Emily. It’s a way for me to explore more about myself too through that process. I’ve definitely learned more about myself -- but I continue to be surprised. I don’t want to say that it’s been tumultuous, but there’s a lot of motion, a lot of change happening within the project. I had a feeling that might happen, that’s why I wanted to tour it upfront of the album, because I wanted to figure out what we’re doing. And it’s ongoing, too, it’s not like, "I know who she is -- we’re done." Sometimes you need a metaphor or an abstraction to describe something better or more accurately than an analysis of it. I am experiencing that process, the unpacking of it. It’s evolving as my understanding of this project and this character grows.

RB: Does the idea of collaborating with the symphony intimidate you?
ES: Not at all. Hey, I’m over the moon. I’ve been communicating a lot with the arranger [Bruce Donnelly], and we are gonna have a lot of fun! I know that much. We’ve been throwing ideas back and forth, and figuring out ways of unpacking the music, and using that incredible format of the orchestra. I never thought that would be an aspect of this project, but when the San Diego Symphony reached out to see if I wanted to do this, I wasn’t going to say no. It’s been a really beautiful partnership, and we haven’t even played a note! So I’m really excited. This is a special one-time deal. Maybe we’ll all want to do this a bunch more, but to me, this is very special. I’ve never performed my compositions in front of a symphony before.

RB: You seem to have grown up surrounded by music and instruments, and I know you played violin, oboe and clarinet -- what was it about the bass that made you lean toward it rather than those instruments you already played?
ES: What really struck me when I picked up the instrument was the culture around it -- the concept of this music -- improvised, jazz music. I felt like I had found my people and my calling. I recognized that, "Oh my god, this is what I want to do." Just in terms of the sound of the instrument, I had a very strong visceral reaction. Now I realize, after playing for 15 years, that it’s very balancing -- there is a healing. I wasn’t conscious of that when I picked it up, but now I get a lot more out of it. It’s healing. It’s medicinal to me.

RB: Were there vocalists back in the day who were important to you that are still important now?
ES: Of course, but I wouldn’t know how to begin listing them now. I’m interested in being heard as me when somebody comes to my performance. People are always going to read into wherever they think you’re coming from, but for this project, it’s really important that people come unprepared, in terms of not bringing expectations. I really hope people are able to hear it for what it is. What’s interesting to me about art in general is what people bring to it.

RB: Since your career took off, I can’t help noticing that a lot of young women seem to be taking up the bass. Does that feel gratifying to you?
I don’t know about that. That could just be the way that you see it. Well, it’s a doorway for anyone to get in touch with their creative potential. It doesn’t have to be girls; it doesn’t have to be bass. What I’ve experienced is that there are just more women doing everything. I grew up playing in orchestras where most people were women. It was only when I got on the East Coast, in the environment of Berklee, that it became a big deal that I was a woman. And I’m like, "Where have you guys been?" [Laughs]

RB: I caught your duet last year on the "Tavis Smiley" show with Wayne Shorter. What does it feel like to play with a cat of his stature?
ES: Well, I had a great time, but I just felt like there were so many other bass players I would have rather seen do it. I can think of at least five other players I would have preferred to watch. But spending time with Wayne in any context is the funnest, most inspiring, most expanding experience ever. He is the best; it’s so amazing to be around him. I’ve been very, very blessed in this lifetime to be able to spend some time with Wayne, and whether its playing or hanging, there’s nothing I’d rather do in the whole, wide world -- except maybe watching him play.

Esperanza Spalding performs with the San Diego Symphony on Thursday, Aug. 20, at 7:30 p.m. at the Embarcadero Marina Park South. Tickets are available here.

 Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years. Follow him on Twitter @robertbushjazz. Visit The World According to Rob.

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