Esperanza Spalding and the future of fusion
by Michael Gonzales
With the release of Miles Davis’s revolutionary records In a Silent Way in 1969 and Bitches Brew the following year, the genius trumpeter, with the invaluable assistance of an amazing crew of young collaborators, created the musical future shock later called fusion.
Best described as improvised music that incorporates rock, funk, and soul into the grooves, fusion “revamped…Black music’s avant-garde through the use of electronics,” musician and cultural critic Greg Tate explained in 1983.
However, when rock critic Lester Bangs wrote that In a Silent Way “gives you faith in the future of music,” he had no idea the prophecy of his words. A few years later, Miles Davis’s alumni, including keyboardist Herbie Hancock, pianist Chick Corea, guitarist John McLaughlin, and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, formed their own innovative groups Head Hunters, Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and, of course, Weather Report.
Yet, from fusion’s early days as a noisy musical contender, many narrow-minded jazz aficionados and critics were unable to appreciate the sonic change when acoustic became suddenly antiquated. Appalled by upstarts infiltrating their music with electric guitars, Moogs, wild percussion instruments, tape loops, and synthesizers, purists referred to the new musical movement as anti-jazz. In Considering Genius (2006), jazz traditionalist and essayist Stanley Crouch stated that fusion was “the aesthetic death valley” of jazz.
Yet, while the genre became quite popular, not many women instrumentalists ventured into fusion. With the exception of Alice Coltrane, Bobbi Humphrey, Joni Mitchell, Patrice Rushen, Meshell Ndegeocello, and a few others, fusion has long remained a male-dominated field.
“Jazz has always been a melting pot of influences and that fusion is what I want to capture in my own music,” says bassist, vocalist, and composer Esperanza Spalding, who won the Best New Artist Grammy earlier this year.
On Spalding’s three solo albums Junjo (2006), Esperanza (2008), and Chamber Music Society (2010), the twenty-six-year-old Portland, Oregon, native incorporates various styles ranging from Latin rhythms, funk, bossa nova, soul, orchestrated strings, and improvisational noodling. Currently working on her highly anticipated fourth disc, which Spalding told Billboard she would be recording in May, she is also the best chance of jazz-fusion regaining popularity in the new millennium.
“Radio Music Society will draw more from the influence of R&B and popular music,” she explains. “I’m working on bringing those songs to their full potential. I’ll be coming to the listener and trying to draw them into what I’m doing. I’m using the tools of excitement—captivating sounds, captivating arrangements—that make you jump up and pay attention.”
Though not yet committed, Spalding hopes to recruit vocalist Lalah Hathaway and trumpeter Randy Brecker to the project; she plans to cover songs by the Beach Boys and her musical hero, Wayne Shorter. “When I hear Wayne Shorter live in ’88, I hear David Bowie, Miles, and Sly Stone all over it. Genre labels only apply in the record store.”
Leading jazz critic Howard Mandel, author of Miles Ornette Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz (2007) appreciates Spalding’s revamping of the old genre. “There seems to be a lot of ways Spalding could go musically, and I hope she pursues them all,” he says. “It’s great to see the future of jazz emerge from young people who have broad tastes, love to improvise, and embody high standards of instrumental virtuosity.”
Record producer and former Blue Note Records A&R man Brian Michel Bacchus, who signed Norah Jones to the premier jazz label in 2000, is yet another industry veteran blown away by Spalding’s skills. “Not only is she a killer bass player, but conceptually, as a composer, the work is solid. In music, bass is the foundation, so whatever she builds from there is bound to be funky.”
Like other left-of-center artists before her, including D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Maxwell, the Roots, Jill Scott, Bilal, and Robert Glasper, Spalding is also turned on by the vintage hip-hop of A Tribe Called Quest.
The subject of an upcoming documentary directed by Michael Rappaport, the group debuted in 1990 with People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm and helped develop the template for the fusion of post-bop and rap. At a time when collaborations between Gang Starr and Branford Marsalis, Miles Davis and Easy Moe Bee were the norm, A Tribe Called Quest were the leaders of the new cool.
Citing The Low End Theory (1991) and Midnight Marauders (1993) as her favorite Tribe discs, she began collaborating last year with the group’s leader and hip-hop fusionist Q-Tip on tracks for Radio Music Society. Mixing ATCQ songs into her own sets, Spalding says, “I played ‘Find a Way’ at the Atlanta Jazz Festival. I find that every Tribe song can be turned into a chart, a skeleton to really build on.”
Former Tribe producer and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad explains, “The bulk of hip-hop before Tribe or Pete Rock and CL Smooth was more beat driven, more locked in simplistic grooves that was kind of stiff. I don’t mean that in a negative way, but our music just had more movement and melodies. Be it the bass line, chord structures, or the different time signatures, the music always moved.”
However, as much as A Tribe Called Quest dug the music of Charles Mingus, Donald Byrd, and Ron Carter, they were also fans of ’70s soul fusionists like Earth, Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder. “Many of the guys who played on those Motown and Philly International records were themselves local jazz musicians who had no problem bridging their skills in the studio,” Muhammad says. “It wasn’t about jazz or soul or pop; it was about making good music.”
Q-Tip met Spalding through mutual friends a few years ago. “Her songs are amazing, just killing,” Q-Tip says. “She works very hard and is a great writer. As a creative artist, she has stuck to her guns. We’ve been working in my studio, and she is such a brain and a joy to be around, and that vibe comes out in her music.”
Virginia-bred soul singer Sun Singleton, who has performed with the Roots, says, “It’s so good that an artist like Spalding has the brazen attitude that she can play anything she wants to; just from listening to her, you get the sense that she is artistically secure in herself.”
Yet, what of the detractors who might think Spalding’s musical experimentation with more commercial music for Radio Music Society will translate into a sell-out move? “I feel I have the freedom to explore,” Spalding explains. “I’m just taking full advantage of that freedom as an individual and as an artist. If critics want to write that I’m destroying jazz, they can.”