WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For Digital First Media
Grammy Award–winning bassist, vocalist and composer Esperanza Spalding has already established herself as one of the most exciting and innovative jazz artists to emerge in the last decade. Spalding is reinventing herself with an entirely new production, unlike anything that she has done – well, at least not since childhood. Emily’s D+Evolution incorporates theater, poetry and movement with music for a type of performance art that she was inspired to perform as a child.
I’ve been a fan of Spalding’s music for several years. And though I usually keep my interviews “professional,” I had an ulterior motive for wanting to interview Spalding. I wanted to talk to her about our mutual friend and her former guitarist, the late Jef Lee Johnson. Though I didn’t know if it was appropriate, and I didn’t expect it to fit in with the theme of this article, I took a leap of faith. The following are excerpts from our telephone interview, in which she answered my questions openly and enthusiastically.
Brodkin: How did you get the inspiration to do Emily’s D+Evolution?
Spalding: It was October 17th, and it was about 2 in the morning and I just couldn’t sleep. I saw these little vignettes playing in my mind, these little music videos. I don’t know what you would call them. There wasn’t music yet. I saw the character (Emily). I thought, “Oh, my gosh. It would be so much fun to explore something like that.”
Of course what it has evolved into now – it’s evolving – in the evolution part of the name (is) really different from that original little burst of inspiration. The seed is still there, that first seed as a way to explore. Actually, there’s this theater group that does a lot of work in prisons, and they were just interviewing one of the inmates who was acting in the production, and he said, “When you put on the mask, you can go other ways, into areas that maybe you wouldn’t have the courage or feel too embarrassed to go into if you didn’t have the mask on.” In a way that’s what Emily does for me.
Brodkin: Do you consider Emily to be a character that you’re portraying or just a hidden part of yourself?
Spalding: Yes. I’m portraying a part of myself.
Brodkin: But it’s a part of you that you haven’t really explored before, for whatever reason.
Spalding: Absolutely, absolutely… Emily is my middle name. It’s my legal full name, it’s Esperanza Emily Spalding. I stopped using the name Emily when I was a kid, just because I thought Esperanza was hipper. I thought it was cooler and different and I had this very strong urge to be different and independent in myself. I always felt like that was really important. But with that being said, when I was a kid I was always making my friends put on these productions with me. We would create these scenes and these contests and ask our parents to come into it and participate in this little world we had created. Whether it was like a pretend science fair, or we would be dancing teams and string together little story lines between the songs that we were doing – some of our favorites, popular bands of the day. I realize that I’ve always had a great curiosity of the art of performance… about staging the stories and the ideas. It’s the next part of the “new character” I’m really bringing up-to-date, or reaching back and reincorporating something that I haven’t explored since I was a little kid.
Brodkin: I saw the YouTube video that you did about this production. In it you said the Ginger Baker documentary – “Beware of Mr. Baker” [Insurgent Media, 2012] – had an impact on you.
Spalding: These guys in Cream were avid jazz-heads. They were jazz lovers. Ginger Baker started being really obsessed with African drumming. I thought, “Man, I didn’t know that those were the threads of musical passion that wove into this amazing rock band.” And I love the amplified energy of the music they have studied. They were all these students of jazz, avid students of jazz, plugged in and turned up. Incorporating what they’ve been studying into this rocking, make your booty shake music. That really resonated with me. It was like a green light or like a pass, like, “Oh, you’re allowed to do that.” It really inspired me.
In that documentary he talked about how much he loves Art Blakey, and how much he loves Elvin Jones, and how in his life the greatest thing to happen to him was becoming close with his heroes. I thought, “Right, right, right. Take what you love and put it in the music you want to play.” You’re totally allowed to do that. Not that musicians are always proving how much they know from what they’ve studied. I guess I just had this epiphany like, “Oh… it’s okay to rock out even if you’re a student of this music, ‘this music’ being jazz.” That really opened my eyes. I felt like, “Gosh, I want to express myself that way, in a turned up, amped up way, and also I have to give full disclosure.”
I thought, “Oh, my gosh. I’m not fully honoring all the sources of my inspiration, for some reason.” Maybe because I’ve got to have them be more serious or jazz-directed. I don’t know. I don’t know what the reason was. But now I feel really free with this project to just go for it and do it however I heard it and rock out.
Brodkin: My last question is not specifically for the article that I’m going to be writing to promote your show. It’s a personal question. Jef Lee Johnson was a good friend of mine.
Spalding: Oh, really!
Brodkin: He’s actually the one who introduced me to your music. He invited me to come and see you at the Electric Factory when he was performing with you. I just wanted to know for myself and for some other people who I know who were very close to Jef if you have any thoughts or comments about what he meant to you either personally or professionally or both.
Spalding: Yes, actually since you know who he is, I would say, Jef Lee Johnson is a spiritual guide, the major inspiration of this project, 100 percent. In some of the photos you’ll see a crow and that’s my nod to Jef Lee Johnson – as you know, probably (his moniker is) Rainbow Crow. I like to imagine that, if you will, the crow is sitting in the corner somewhere shaking its head in disapproval or nodding, saying, “All right, ya’ll, keep listening.” Absolutely, Jef really gave me… the confidence to explore this aspect of myself. He’s the first person who told me on a few occasions that he thought… that this is really what I was trying to be.
Thank you for asking because Jef Lee Johnson is absolutely at the heart and core of this sound. We miss him so, so, so, so, so, so much!
IF YOU GO:
What: Esperanza Spalding Presents Emily’s D+Evolution
When: Performance is at 8 p.m., Sunday, May 17. Doors open at 7.
Where: Theater of Living Arts, 334 South St., Philadelphia.
Ages: all ages
Venue Website: www.livenation.com
Artist’s Website: www.esperanzaspalding.com