Esperanza Spalding discusses her hero Wayne Shorter
When I phoned Esperanza Spalding to talk about Wayne Shorter, the bassist-singer couldn’t wait to get started: “I love Wayne,” she said. “I can talk about Wayne all day long.”
Maybe you saw Spalding with Shorter last year on the Tavis Smiley Show, performing the saxophonist’s “Footsteps” in duet. Also last year, Spalding was the vocalist with Shorter and his quartet for performances of Shorter’s “Gaia” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.
Here’s my conversation with Spalding about Wayne Shorter — “a one-in-a-million musician,” she calls him.
Jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding, who has performed with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, shares throughts about what makes him unique. (John Green/Bay Area News Group) ( JOHN GREEN )
Q Esperanza, maybe you can describe what it feels like to perform with Wayne, whose music you’ve studied and enjoyed for years, I imagine.
A I was a guest just a few times when we did the piece (“Gaia”), and then an opportunity came up for me to sit in on a couple of events. It’s so exciting. Just when you’re in the presence of somebody who’s at that level of music and musicianship — it’s very inspiring and very humbling, like, `Whoa! There’s so far to go out here.” It’s like I haven’t done nothing.
Q Wayne has this reputation for being sort of “elliptical” or “nebulous” in his conversations and interviews. How about musically? When you’re on the bandstand with him, do those adjectives ever apply?
A He was a sharpshooter in the army, and that’s how he is with everything he studies. He gets right on the mark he wants to convey. He studies it. It’s not nebulous. None of his concepts are nebulous. A lot of people talk about what they want to express in music; music can be very abstract. So there’s a lot concepts that a lot of people want to convey through melody, and he conveys them accurately; you know what he’s saying.
And he’s like that when he speaks, too. He takes the time to say exactly what he means. And it may seem metaphorical to you or me, but it’s literal. And that’s a good lesson, too, to see somebody who is willing to put in the extra effort to express the totality of the idea. I want to be like that in my communication and my music. I want to be a musical sharpshooter.
Q That’s interesting. He so often gets described as this “non-linear” kind of guy — the inscrutable mystic.
A Maybe it’s because we habituate ourselves to coloring in between the lines. But it’s a whole piece of paper. You can draw around the edges of the page, if you want, and you can even draw on the walls of the house.
People define logic and “linear” in a certain way. We all sort of agree on that, that this is more beautiful than the artwork where the kid drew the pony all over the sides of the paper.
If somebody says Wayne’s sort of “out,” it’s not really out. It’s an extension of the subject that most of us wouldn’t have the courage or the expansiveness of mind to incorporate into our thinking.
Q Can you remember the first Wayne Shorter tune that totally turned you on?
A “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum” (from the album “Speak No Evil”) was one of the first ones I learned. I don’t know if it was the first one I loved, but I wanted to learn it, the way the melody moved.
Then when I got “Atlantis,” oh, my God, I thought a hole was going to open into some other parallel reality, and I wanted to go there; I wanted to go where that parallel reality was. I’d never heard anything like that before — the way he’s writing and the way he’s playing through the writing. And then “Phantom Navigator,” oh, my God!
His way of hearing and expressing melodies and forms; on those records, I heard an even deeper depth. Obviously, he’s one of the greatest saxophone players of all time, certainly among those living. But then there’s also the way he composes, the way his sense of melody is so sublime and so inspired. And then you have these two records where the arranging is so beyond anything that was happening in that era (the mid-1980s) or in so-called jazz. He’s drawing in a different plane. We’re all drawing between the lines, and he’s drawing on the whole wall.
Q Why do improvising players go crazy over his tunes? What’s operating inside the tunes that makes them so attractive?
A One of the aspects that’s really appealing is that the chord progressions move in unusual, atypical ways, but they sound totally natural. So they don’t sound weird or forced or different for the sake of being different. They flow in such a natural way, but they’re very different. Maybe that’s part of the appeal. At least for me as a musician, that’s what makes them so yummy.
Q Do you find that his music directly reflects his personality?
A That’s true with every person; music sounds like the person who made it, even if we don’t get to meet that aspect of the person that’s getting expressed. Wayne Shorter is the most genuine person I’ve ever met, and I guess the music sounds like that. It sounds really truthful and really honest and really free.
And the level of mastery, it’s not random. He’s a composition major; that’s what he went to college for. He knows all the tools, in and out…. If you really speak the language and you have great ideas, it’s just like a great poet — you let people experience it through your thoughts or sentences.
Q What’s his place in the music? What’s his legacy in jazz?
A Music — it’s a place in music. I’m frustrated that he’s not recognized in the broad landscape as a composer, and as a composer-orchestrator. And he’s right here creating these profound works, pieces of art, for the world, for all of history.
And I think, tragically, outside of the jazz circle, people with the means to support his compositions, people with the means to give him commissions so everyone can hear what this man is discovering in his explorations through music — he’s sometimes overlooked. Again, he’s at a level of exploration that’s on another plane. And what he has to bring to us compositionally is here, right now on the planet. And he’s too often overlooked by the classical music world and the contemporary music world, and I think that’s a crying shame and that we’re going to recognize it 50 years from now.
He’s almost a mythical figure, and those in the so-called jazz world know that. Yet when I’ve had conversations with orchestras about doing some of his pieces, before they’ve even seen the score, they say, ‘Oh yeah, sure, we’ll have one of our orchestrators orchestrate it.’ There’s the assumption — they don’t even know that he orchestrates! And he does; he’s amazing at writing for symphonies. And I think that’s a testament about how misunderstood and misrepresented he is beyond the world of jazz.
We have a one-in-a-million musician, a once-in-an-era composer in our midst, and I wish whoever it is in the contemporary music world who has the power to make people recognize that would catch up with where he’s at and give him some serious grants to manifest more of what he can see that we can’t.
Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/richardscheinin.