One of the few younger non-Japanese acts gracing the stage at this weekend’s Tokyo Jazz Festival is singer and bassist Esperanza Spalding. Though appearing at the city’s main jazz event, the multifaceted 30-year-old musician could just as easily be performing at Fuji Rock Festival or Summer Sonic. Truly hard to categorize, Spalding seamlessly mixes pop, neo-soul and bossa nova into her heady brew.
Since breaking out in the mid-2000s, she has gone on to capture the best new artist Grammy in 2011 (famously beating out Justin Bieber), while gaining an avid following unusual for such a young jazz musician. For the 2015 Tokyo Jazz Festival she’ll be showcasing her Emily’s D+Evolution project before undertaking a full nationwide tour. D+Evolution showcases Spalding’s alter ego, Emily, and takes the audience through her childhood and up to the present day. On the verge of arriving for the festival, she spoke with The Japan Times.
What can we expect with the Emily’s D+Evolution project?
It’s hard to say what it is. It’s music. It’s taking it back to the roots, it’s about reaching back, about being a child and growing. It’s about a lot of things, people, ideas coming together. It’s not just jazz, it’s everything I’ve known, growing up, reaching out. I wanted to create another world, to be a sort of surrealist poet. I want to create a new world with each song. You’ll have to hear it for yourself.
You grew up in Portland, a city more associated with indie-rock than jazz or soul music. What was it like, from a musical standpoint, growing up there?
Well, you say that it’s known for indie-rock only, but that’s all that you personally know. There are other things going on there; like everywhere, what’s happening is not known outside the actual place.
Chicago is not a place that people associate with avant-garde music, but I know some people who are doing great things in that community there. So, to say that only one type of music sums up a certain city is misleading. Also, I was too young when I lived in Portland to really go out and experience music. I was too young to go to clubs. It wasn’t until I moved to Boston to go to school that I started doing that.
Jazz, unlike pop or rock, has a history of mentoring. You yourself were mentored by and studied under (trumpeter) Thara Memory and (saxophonist) Joe Lovano. Why is the mentoring phenomenon more prevalent in jazz than other music?
Well, I don’t think that’s totally true. Look at hip-hop, where so many young artists are taken under the wing of older artists. The Beatles had their mentors. Jimi Hendrix had all these blues-men he was inspired by. Joni Mitchell has been a mentor to so many songwriters and musicians. Even Radiohead have said that Wayne Shorter influenced their music. So to say mentoring only exists in jazz isn’t completely true.
Speaking of Joe Lavano, what was it like studying and playing with him, and what have you learned from him?
That’s not an easy thing to comment on in just a few words. He showed me so many things. When Joe goes deep he goes really deep and he can go even deeper. He really is all about freedom, he taught me to be free with my music. Jazz is more than just music, it’s freedom. I got that from him. But if you’re expecting the kind of music Joe plays from Emily’s D+Evolution you’ll be disappointed. D+Evolution is something totally different, totally new, different than what people expect. They’ll have to hear it for themselves.
Esperanza Spalding brings Emily’s D+Evolution to the Kaleidoscope Stage at the Hall on Sept. 5 at 5:30 p.m. The Tokyo Jazz Festival runs Sept. 4-6 at the Tokyo International Forum Hall A, the Tokyo International Forum Plaza and the Cotton Club in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. Tickets cost between ¥3,000-¥18,600. For more information, visit www.tokyo-jazz.com or www.esperanzaspalding.com.
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