Esperanza Spalding in conversation: I love jazz. I love juicy chord progressions: Photos, Video

- in NEWS, VIDEOS, Woman in Jazz & Blues

With her new compositions and Songwrights Apothecary Lab, the artist explores music’s potential to restore us — and invites listeners to consider how that process works.

On a sweltering June afternoon on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center lacked air conditioning. Yet Esperanza Spalding looked nonplussed in her now-customary jumpsuit emblazoned with the words “Life Force,” her hair braided into an elegant crown. Those of us in folding chairs, wearing Covid masks as we made tentative returns to normalcy, and the other assembled musicians (that day, pianist Leo Genovese, guitarist Matthew Stevens and saxophonist Aaron Burnett), didn’t seem to mind the heat either. More than a year into the pandemic, we sought a different sort of relief.

Presented within New York’s River to River Festival, for which Spalding had performed onstage days earlier, here was the third installment to date of her Songwrights Apothecary Lab. According to its website, the Lab is “half songwrighting workshop and half guided-research practice” (Spalding prefers this spelling, as in the term “playwright”), seeking “to develop a structure for the collaborative development of new compositions designed to offer enhanced salutary benefit to listeners.”

The Lab’s online home looks at first much like a typical music site. On closer inspection, it is a portal to a wide range of material, the animating question of which appears to be: How deep do you want to go? There is music to hear via downloadable tracks, and to watch, through videos for each numbered “Formwela.” There are carefully curated research citations, which range from clinical studies with titles like “The Polyvagal Hypothesis: Common mechanisms mediating autonomic regulation, vocalizations and listening” to poetry, practical notes and teachings from various traditions, including Buddhism and Hinduism. Some of this material was compiled and expressed by Ganavya Doraiswamy, a vocalist, composer and scholar of Indian descent, who has collaborated with Spalding at Harvard University, where she is a doctoral candidate (and Spalding is Professor of the Practice of Music), and who sings strikingly on Spalding’s Formwela 2. There is even merch, including colorful patches, shaped like ears, meant to help us focus on the act of listening.

Spalding recruited a team of researchers for her Lab and a council of advisors, drawn from leading academicians and practitioners in fields related to music therapy. She sat with them between songs at Manhattan’s Soto Vélez and discussed how research begets music and vice versa. (That 90-minute performance and dialogue can still be seen here.)

Each version of Spalding’s Lab so far has been distinct, as revealed in videos on the website and Spalding’s YouTube channel. In Wasco County, Oregon, where she hunkered down after the pandemic hit, the videos play like ritual enactments, the music like incantations. The ones from Portland, Oregon, seem more like documents of her songwriting collaborations with the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Corey King; here, their songs sound like intimate conversations. The 13 tracks gathered on Songwrights Apothecary Lab (out Sept. 24, on Concord Jazz) include a half-dozen created before a live audience at Soto Vélez, which range in style and feel from lullaby-like ballads to experimental jazz. Each comes with a specific annotation, a prescription of sorts. (“Formwela 3” is meant “for releasing the heaviness of a seemingly endless blue state.”)

Spalding, 36, began her career as a jazz bassist who sings and is now more of a singer-songwriter who plays bass and creates popular music that defies any category, including jazz. Lately, she has toggled between her Lab and her work as librettist and singer for Iphigenia, an opera by her clearest and deepest mentor, Wayne Shorter, slated for premiere in November. More than a decade ago Spalding told me, “As a child, I learned that music could be a nurturing, healing thing. I’ve never forgotten that.”

During her Lower Manhattan residency, days after her first public performance in more than a year, we talked about what it means to dig into that idea.

Spalding in the Lab in June, New York City. Credit: Jati Lindsay.

How has it felt to return to live performance?

The senses are more alert. Everything feels heightened. I can sense subtle shifts of energy between what we send and what we receive. Also, there is a mysterious stillness among us that maybe has to do with a hyper-intention that grows out of not having live music for so long. At the same time, it feels like a vacuum — such quiet and presence and attention drawing us all in with great force. It’s refreshing, showing up for that kind of exchange.

That must have a healing effect for musicians and audience members. But this new project, the Songwrights Apothecary Lab, is a far more overt attempt at offering healing, isn’t it?

We’re all in need of healing and longing for solutions. How would I even go about offering it to a person who may be seeking it in a moment of need outside of a therapeutic context? I am not a practitioner, which is part of the reason I don’t use the word “healing.” We’re going through a lot of tough stuff. I really don’t want to pretend or imply or promise that these songs are any kind of medicine or answer or fix.

Should we say “restorative”?

I like that word, restorative, because it implies that it’s already there, which is an important theme for me. This isn’t additive. It’s not that we’re adding something that allows or enables an effect. It’s more like activating.

Instead of correcting a wrong, you’re restoring a right?

Yes. I was never looking for clinical applications. To be clear, that is a common application of music therapy. It’s just not the question I’m asking. I’m asking the question as a performer who will not have that intimacy and that one-on-one exchange, so the work has a different dimension.

My longing has always been this: What can musicians — performers, who make records and play shows — do in our field of work and art that is informed by, inspired by and expanded by what the folks in the clinical field know and have been studying? Can we make a pathway, can we create a rivulet so that all this research can travel out into the world through what we do?

If that’s the idea, what’s the basic format?

The format is … well, there isn’t a format. I had some ideas about songs. I wanted to see how a research-informed approach to writing could respond to questions that came out of being stuck in the pandemic. I had assembled a council of esteemed professionals and a team of researchers. I had some funding. This all began at Harvard, where I was teaching, until that campus was shut down. Beginning in September, we had conversations about the intentions of the songs. I share with council members how I am approaching the lyrics as I write them. This often prompts research in different directions and, through that exchange, a dialogue, an exploration. The researchers are brilliant and very discerning and they come back honestly, with data and conclusions but also questions about the claims that each study is making.

We aren’t attempting to respond to patients in vulnerable situations, such as in a hospital with Covid. Instead, we’re all patients of each other. It’s more a case of offering it as a performer, with the conceit being that we’ve woven elements into these songs that we understand have been shown in other contexts to initiate dimensions of restorative experience.

I did this first in Wasco County, Oregon, where I moved when the pandemic hit. It worked so well that we decided to do it again in Portland. In Wasco County, I was the only songwriter. In Portland, we had two songwriters, Corey King and myself. At first I thought, “I’ll write a song for you and you write one for me.” Then we discovered we were longing for similar things. So we wrote together.

Spalding and Corey King. Credit: Holly Andres.

You mentioned questions that arose during the pandemic. What questions?

I’m asking about one million questions, and they keep coming. But essentially you could say that there really is one question of the lab: How can we as performers initiate, augment, grow the salutary potential of our offerings, of our work?

How do the council and researchers work with you?

It’s different every day. But I can offer some snapshots. For example, [last] fall when I spoke with two members of our council, I said, “I’m thinking about a song that a person could hear internally when they maybe couldn’t sing out loud or have access to their musical device. What is a paradigm for that?” They gave me the term “audiation.” And what that means to me is self-soothing, internal humming, using the internal sound to meet external needs. I don’t want to use their clinical terminology because I’m not versed in it.

Another example: There isn’t yet a comprehensive way to measure short-term changes in cortisol — which we talk about in terms of stress and stress reduction — without separating those changes from other factors. There was this study out of Holland of work-related stress, a very long study with a lot of participants. They made an attempt at distilling and indexing musical components that they came to understand contributed to stress reduction. One had to do with harmonic progressions that orbit around a predictable sense of home, and the range within the human voice that the melody travels.

Now, I’m a musician. I love jazz. I love juicy chord progressions. My instinct, coming from my personal taste, was to go places and do things harmonically that were cool and clever and satisfying on a musical level. But the research prompted an exploration of something else: How far can I stand to push staying in the same place for the sake of creating this sort of home base? That’s really the offering of the song. It’s not “Let me show you how cool the harmonic structure is.” It’s to create this musical surrogate of the sensation of a place, of having this predictable home base that you don’t travel far from and that always comes back when you expect it, so it gives you a sense of relief.

At the beginning and end of Formwela 5, the piano part almost feels like pulse regulation…

That’s deep. I wrote that piano part in the fall while I was reading about a shift in the regulation of the heart, and this theory that our human evolution as social animals influenced this shift. We have a social engagement system — the way that our eyes and ears connect with the polyvagal nerve bundle that directly affects our digestion and heart rate. The idea is that as we become more social animals, our basic biological functions are influenced by our social engagement, especially via our vocal communication. I was deep in that reading, and I was thinking, what if a person is so agitated they can’t hear what you are saying even if you are saying the most beautiful things? Thank you; I love you; please sit down, I have food for you. But a person is in such a heightened state, they can’t even receive it or process that.

It’s important to understand that we’re not just drawing from articles in the Cochrane Library [a collection of databases in medicine and other healthcare specialties summarizing and interpreting research results]. We’re drawing from the wisdom of many cultures and practices, and from the personal experiences of elders. One very direct example is the Charukesi raga, from South Indian Carnatic music. It’s a raga you sing to soothe your heart and to calm the nervous system, though that may be an oversimplification. Ganavya told me about this, and she told me that when you improvise with that raga, an important idea is that you go up and you always descend even further, like an exhale. Formwela 1 is based on that raga.

I was struck by a lyric in Formwela 4 — “To get it made/Youre gonna need it that way.” That implies something intimate but also seems to address a basic need of any songwriter or artist.

The intent of that song, the invitation of that song, is to be able to dare to say what you really need and where you’re at. With “get it made” in the lyrics, I was referring to a loveship, just to “get it made,” meaning intimacy. But I do think I do my best work when I’m able to meet my needs and articulate them, as mundane as that may be in some cases.

With this music, you are quite clearly articulating needs and working toward specific restorative effects. But that doesn’t change the creative process or the artistic impulse, does it?

You can’t fake this shit. It’s still got to be good music. Nobody cares if I research 25 things and put them all in a song. If you don’t want to hear that song, it’s not going to work. And there are no minimum or maximum requirements here. It’s an offering, and you can go as far with me as you want or just enjoy it as something dope.

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