Claiming Space in the Bay Area: The multi-Grammy winning Esperanza Spalding makes Bay Area appearances a regular habit
By Lou Fancher
The time is arguably ripe for five-time Grammy Award winning vocalist, bassist and composer Esperanza Spalding to buy a home in the East Bay. In the first three-quarters of this year alone, Spalding has splashed down a number of times in the Bay Area, including in February at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall for the sold-out West Coast premiere of …(Iphigenia), an opera she created with jazz legend Wayne Shorter.
Other recent slip-in-and-outs this summer: a July 14 performance at Frost Amphitheater at Stanford University will be followed up on Aug. 4, when Spalding returns as a special guest artist at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre, where she will be joining the Encuentros Orchestra. The ground-breaking orchestra brings together 100 young musicians (ages 18–26) from 34 youth orchestra and El Sistema-inspired programs in 22 countries to perform with members of the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles. Under the baton of celebrated Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel, Spalding—along with her trio: Matthew Stevens, guitar; Eric Doob, drums; and Darrell Grant, piano—will perform “Gaia,” a 25-minute work composed by Shorter.
Cast a glance further back on annual calendars during years prior to the pandemic and local fans of her multidisciplinary music will recall Spalding at the sensational opening of the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco in 2013; the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre in late 2019; the 50th Anniversary Concord Jazz Festival that same year; and appearing in October 2021 as one of San Francisco Symphony’s eight Collaborative Partners. The showcase of top flight talent and program at that event included “Gaia” and kicked off the season under then-new SFS music director Esa-Pekka Salonen. The performance was later broadcast on PBS Great Performances.
Spalding’s debut album, Junjo, came out roughly 15 years ago, and during the ensuing decade, her jazz-laced recordings and projects have had her collaborating with Janelle Monáe, Bruno Mars, Harry Belafonte, guitarist Matthew Stevens, multi-instrumentalists Morgan Guerin and Ganavya Doraiswamy, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, trombonist Corey King and the legendary Shorter, among many others.
Most recently, projects undertaken with artists working in other genres have integrated movement and choreography developed with New York dancer and choreographer Antonio Brown, legendary dancer and choreographer Carmen de Lavallade and others. Named best new artist at the 2011 Grammy Awards, she has won album or arrangement/vocalist Grammy Awards for Radio Music Society (2012), City of Roses (2013) and 12 Little Spells (2019). In 2022, she picked up her fifth Grammy, receiving the 2022 Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album for her eighth studio outing, Songwrights Apothecary Lab.
Expanding Spalding’s already wide range displayed in recordings, collaborative projects and in performance, she was in 2017 named professor of the practice of music at Harvard University. Spalding recently launched at Harvard the Songwrights Apothecary Lab (her award-winning album of the same name sprang from the lab), in which she and a cohort of students endeavor in an exploratory setting to engage in songwriting workshops and other projects while working in alignment with practitioners in healing, cognition, psychology, neuroscience, ethnomusicology, literature, and jazz and dance liberation rituals.
A curated assortment of traditional and alternative music makers and choreographers working in the field of music contribute an essential component. The trans-disciplinary lab has resulted most directing for Spalding in songs she calls “formwelas” (pronounced like formulas, but with a “w”). She emphasizes formwelas are not formulaic solutions, but are musical and physical responses to questions that continue to percolate in the lab.
Spalding tells me during a phone conversation that in the lab right now she’s interested in questions about and beyond people’s relationships to concerts of continuation as individuals and as members of the human species. “I want to have conversations about things that don’t have to do with creating permanent structures or how to offspring them. The lab is a liberating space. I have not yet had a conversation with someone who has deep practices of contemplation around (alternative) ideas of individual futurity or releasing the need for making a mark or completing something before they die.
“I’m interested in a transpersonal sense of continuance. I’m curious about our culture’s obsession with permanence, immortality, lasting, forever-ing, passing on property or names…I’m just curious about exploring other ways that people identify their constancy.”
Spalding grew up in Portland and says her large, extended family provides freedom from any obligation to procreate—and offers a fertile outlet for her terrific interest in the lives and wellbeing of other people’s kids. “It doesn’t feel like it’s a separate line between my line and my cousins and people in my community. There’s so much relatedness; I’ve never thought that if I don’t have kids, something essential will not continue. I can see it continue in all my cousins! I think about genetic continuance, familial continuance, but I don’t have strong feelings about how I have to have a kid.
“The fear of ends, of transitions and death might play into my sense of how I might continue on. I don’t know. That’s why having conversations with people who are studying that part of the human psyche in esoteric practices that specifically address that dimension of human longing for continuance is so vital.”
Contemplating living and dying leads Spalding inevitably to thoughts of hospice care. “I’ve done research because a very dear friend passed away from cancer during the pandemic. She was a very special, plugged-in being. I was longing for support and framing for her, for her to have a skilled hospice practitioner, like an end of life doula. That opened up a portal of research about who was out there speaking about end of life. Sometimes people use the nomenclature of hospice work to talk about social systems, but even outside of individuals wanting to pass or passing on, it’s definitely something to look at.”
Turning our attention to music, I ask her about working with Shorter and what she gleaned from the opera project presented by Cal Performances in February. “With Wayne, the word that’s coming up is consistency. He’s the most consistent person I’ve ever met. It’s uncanny. You meet him for 10 minutes and that’s him. He offers the fullness of himself to everyone he encounters. He’s excited to share what he is, what he knows and what he carries.
“He has the ability to perceive, to sense a person, but he doesn’t throw it back at you. He never explicitly reviews you. It inspires a willingness to engage and play with him. He’s full like the ocean, receiving all the rivers and sending water everywhere. He’s teaming with life.”
Spalding insists that any words acknowledging Shorter’s gifts and the talents he has offered to the world of jazz, especially in his elder years, must make mention of his wife, Carolina Shorter. “I’m just floored by her and I always want to bring her into the conversation about Wayne. We’re so obsessed with the hero worship complex and the mentality of this idea of the singular genius. But Wayne is embedded in a support network that nourishes and cares for him tirelessly. This is what it takes for him to live his life. It’s out of love because he’s family; he’s the love of her life, clearly. At the same time, we’ve been for the last two decades receiving this blessedness and abundance from Wayne because he’s been supported. It’s important to name that.”
From the collaboration with Shorter, Spalding reaped insights that include “personal things, family things, directorship things, ego things, spiritual things, everything you could imagine. It continues to be the most profound experience of my life, including learning what not to do.” Shorter leads in a radically subtle way that can easily cause someone to think he’s not directing a band or group of musicians so much as he is acting as a casual, gentle advisor.
“From where I sit, he looks much more interested in what’s possible from who’s in the room and where they are at and what they’re trying to do than any kind of preconceived idea that’s on the paper. He’ll hold space for people to be themselves with their flailing, failings, strivings or thrivings.” The approach, she suggests, means that eventually, people come around to doing their best. “It’s so interesting when compared to sending out signals and not getting what you expect. When you quiet down and make space and provide guidance for what’s next…(that’s) a compelling leader.”
Asked about approaching her own work, I toss out a string of aspirational words and phrases: cultural unity, harmony, equality, dignity, beauty and respect through music. Spalding says, “I love all those words and phrases. They’re all prompts for a practice, not static states. They can inspire action, relating, studying, striving…. What they remind me of is how we’re not claiming to know what we’re doing.
“That’s why we talk about intended effect or suggested use. It’s about showing our work and sharing what we’re curious about. It’s not, ‘Here’s what we put together.’ That’s why I call the Songwrights Apothecary a lab, not a pharmacy. That word itself, apothecary, speaks to a time of exploration, to when experiments with plants and substances, if combined in unique ways, did things to the human body or to the human experience of the body. The word has enough levity for reflecting the lab’s continual discovery of being.”
Two other words, circular or linear, draw a different response. “I love thinking of either of those words. Circularity and linearity are commonplace aspects of compositions in general. Anyone creating multiple songs is likely to have those in a collection, simply for purposes of having variation. Maybe nothing makes these new songs I am writing different from any other body of work. I think of formwelas in terms of delivery technologies similar to anything you’re going to ingest. Maybe you have those vegetarian capsules that when you look at 15 different supplements, they look similar. The jars, the nutrition fact layouts, the caps, the safety seals on them all look the same.
“With a song, even in a jam session, the tools for exchanging materials look really similar and they are really similar. Any difference could be on how your body reacts, the method of delivery. For instance, look at Formwela 2. Taking curricula from Kahn Academy, we took the curricula’s nine sound elements that can be combined to make a tenth sound, which can’t be produced itself because it’s a culmination of the other nine sounds. That tenth sound offers release, spaciousness, liberation from confinement. You could listen to the song without that tenth sound incorporated and see if there’s a difference.
“Intention is powerful and legible. You can listen—alone—to Max Richter’s ‘Sleep’ any time, anywhere. He’s offered an eight-hour composition he made with neuroscientists about sleep. You can choose to share it or not. Maybe just that power of shared attention will enable you to experience what went into it differently. Maybe another day, you listen to it and don’t feel sleepy because you’re not actively sharing an intention.”
Similarly, Spalding says the formwelas are an invitation to experience a special alteration in sensory experience by joining in to the experience and opening up to the offer, the cues and invitations of the songs. “That makes a difference. Again, you can just think of them as random songs, and that’s fine too. But the songs aren’t just about moving forward and putting them out for listening; we, the musicians, were also affected by the process of making the songs. We’ve already been effected through the process of researching, composing and creating the song.”
Which leads us back to wondering about continuance and how circumstances and thought patterns about living and dying influence our motives, growth patterns, urge for agency, actions expressing choice and explorations that might include those “flailings, failings, thrivings and strivings” allowed by Shorter that are so often exposed by the work of a performing artist to public review and judgment. Is there anything resembling permanence or safe harbor in such a setting?
Spalding comes down on the side of advocating for learning in public. “We can show up in circumstances and acknowledge things we are influenced by and, in community, let our growth, evolution and learning be legible. I’m down with that.” So, I ask, what about permanence? Is there anything she believes will always be true of her work?
Stymied, she apologizes, then comes up with three words phrased like a question that fit perfectly: “Anything can happen?”
Hopefully, she’s right and “anything can happen” will continue to apply to her investigative, questions-not-solutions-seeking work and music—and to her investments in local real estate leading to more frequent appearances in the Bay Area.