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Esperanza Spalding: It Takes A 'Society'

Esperanza Spalding blends jazz, R&B, Brazilian vocalese and classical music. Her works have proved to have broad appeal at a moment when many in the music industry were fretting that young people were turning away from jazz en masse. She's managed that rare feat: earning raves from the most discriminating jazz aficionados while also attracting a loyal fan base all over the globe.

It also helps that Spalding has friends in high places. President Obama invited her to perform at the White House twice, as well as at his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. Her new album, Chamber Music Society, harkens back to her classical music training. For Spalding, classical music is "music among friends."

"You get together [with] like-minded individuals and choose a piece of music," Spalding says. "You sit together with this music on the stand, and you have to listen so carefully, breathe and be connected so intimately with everyone around you to balance all of the parts involved in bringing this piece to life. Amazingly, I realized through the process of exploring this music, that's exactly what any ensemble player does in the jazz idiom, too."

Warming In The 'Winter Sun'

In an interview with All Things Considered host Michele Norris, Spalding retraces the steps from inspiration to creation of the song "Winter Sun." It's better to hear Spalding talk over the music, but the story is just as good.

"I was living in New Jersey at the time in a mildly dreary neighborhood," Spalding says. "I would be inside writing and you see the light coming in, and you check to see if it's sunny yet or not in the winter."

Spalding says she built "Winter Sun" around chord voicings in fourths -- it's actually in 4/4 time -- but the "pattern falls in odd syncopations." Spalding never takes the easy way.

"You know, it feels very natural and easy to me," Spalding says. "I never think my music isn't easy until I got to teach it to other people. It's just very natural. I write at the piano, so I write things that fit comfortably under my hands, and I'm not thinking in terms of any specific compositional methods. I'm just seeking sounds."

At first, "Winter Sun" didn't have words. But, as always, inspiration struck.

"I was on a tour with some other musicians; one night at 1 a.m. when I couldn't sleep, the lyrics just all came at once," Spalding says. "This image of this bare tree in front of my house in the winter. When the sun comes, I see the bark light up and I was thinking, 'Wow, as a tree, what a wonderful feeling that you're freezing, so cold that you hold no leaves, no nothing, and to suddenly feel the warmth of that sun pass over you.' That must be a really wonderful sensation. It certainly is to me as a human when I feel the sun touching my skin."

Mastering The Bass

The bass, and the upright bass in particular, is an instrument that often provides deep meaning, tone and emotion to a composition. Spalding started playing this massive instrument at an early age, and in an interview with Norris, the host wonders if Spalding mastered the instrument before she really understood its ability to convey meaning and lend soul to a song.

"I feel that it's exactly the opposite," Spalding says. "For what I can imagine and feel and think and hear, I can hardly do anything on the acoustic bass. It used to be just pure frustration of imagining so much more and being able to get to a certain level of execution. My body couldn't do it yet, because it takes many years to master this instrument. It's very particular. I don't want to say it's physically demanding, but you have to practice very carefully to get to the point where you feel comfortable and at ease on it."

In NPR's Studio 4A, Spalding performed "Little Fly," which you can hear on this page. It's a musical interpretation of the William Blake poem.

"I remember being in Portland and picking this book -- the painting on the cover of the book struck me. I had no idea what it was; I just saw the painting," Spalding says. "And the first page I turn to was this poem. In the store, I read the poem about 10 times. It's just an incredibly powerful, simple little poem. I bought the book and put that poem above my desk. It's been in front of my face for eight or nine years. Two years ago, practicing this melody, [I thought] I definitely want to put lyrics to this, and I realized that it fit the poem to a T. Somehow, my subconscious really wanted to sing this to the people."

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NPR Staff