Esperanza Spalding is on the phone, from her apartment in New York, talking about her new album, Radio Music Society. Specifically, she’s going on about the American Music Program horn players who appear on several tracks.
“These kids are 16, 17, 18, even younger,” she says. “I think the youngest kid in the band is 14, he’s an alto player. And they’re studying the music. They’re living it, they’re breathing it, they’re playing it.”
This reminds her of a pianist and trumpet player she heard recently. “They were really young, and they would play so much!” she says. “They were amazing, and when I met them, I immediately thought of the people that say jazz is dead. I thought: Impossible! These people are here.”
Ironically, Spalding herself is, at 27, frequently cited as an example of how much promise the younger generation of jazz musicians holds. After winning a slew of critics’ polls, the bassist and singer stunned the Grammy audience in 2011 by becoming the first jazz musician ever to win the Best New Artist award. The Obamas are big fans – Spalding performed when the President was awarded his Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 – and she is probably the best-known “young” jazz star since the emergence of the Marsalis brothers.
But there’s a difference between being known and being heard, and Spalding finds it frustrating that mass-media radio and television offer only a “thin slice” of the riches available.
“There’s all this music, that’s here and alive and well and thriving,” she says. “How do we connect the dots between the public at large and all this incredible music?”
It would be tempting to suggest that she made her pop-friendly new album Radio Music Society to address that gap, but the truth is a bit more mundane. In 2009, as she planned for the follow-up to Esperanza, her major-label debut, she found herself looking over four years worth of songwriting.
“I thought, oh, I see some patterns in the material,” she says. “It would be cool to organize them into two halves of the same project, one being this sound with strings and a more intimate kind of vibe, and then this other sound, with horns and a more extroverted vibe.” The first half of the project was released last year as Chamber Music Society, while the second half comprises Radio Music Society.
The new album finds her working with a wide range of collaborators, from jazz pianist Gil Goldstein to rapper Q-Tip on the arranging and production end, to such players as saxophonist Joe Lovano (who taught Spalding when she was at the Berklee School of Music), African guitarist Lionel Loueke, and R&B singer Lalah Hathaway. Given her own impressive profile in the jazz community, it isn’t surprising to find so many A-listers on the credits sheet; what is striking, though, is how humble and star-struck she remains when it comes to her jazz elders.
Take, for instance, Jack DeJohnette, a veteran of Miles Davis’s band and the drummer in Keith Jarrett’s long-time trio. “We did a couple of gigs together, and both times we really connected,” she says. “We connected people-wise, and music-wise, and he asked me to play on his record.”
Spalding wanted him to play on her album as well, but hesitated to ask. “I didn’t want to seem disrespectful,” she explains. “He asked me to play on his record – it’s not the same as me asking him to play on mine. But I sent him the music, and I said, ‘Okay, here are these songs. Would you be into playing these on my record, because I hear you for this and this and this reason.’ And he said yes.”
Perhaps the most nerve-wracking request for approval had to do with the song Endangered Species. It was originally an instrumental that Wayne Shorter had composed for his 1985 album Atlantis. Spalding wanted to sing it, and so wrote lyrics for the tune, but in order to record it needed Shorter’s approval.
“He doesn’t like people writing lyrics to his songs,” she says. “I had to run them by him before we could do it. And he said, yeah, go for it. He liked them.” Still, the whole thing left her feeling a bit like a kid playing in the grown-ups’ world.
“I was so just painstaking with every word, and every combination of words,” she says. “I wanted it to be perfect, as perfect as I could do. I mean, a more experienced, masterful poet surely could have done a better job, and probably in 10 years I’ll look back and go, What? It looks like a five-year-old wrote that.”
She laughs. “But that’s okay. Because ultimately, Wayne said okay. So for now, it’s okay. And that’s the main thing.”