Esperanza Spalding

In retrospect, it's almost comical to think that there was disbelief and outrage in some circles when Esperanza Spalding, a jazz bassist/singer/composer, beat out Justin Bieber at

Experimenting With Instrumental Textures

on Radio Music Society

by Blair Jackson

In retrospect, it’s almost comical to think that there was disbelief and outrage in some circles when Esperanza Spalding, a jazz bassist/singer/composer, beat out Justin Bieber at the 2011 Grammy Awards in the Best New New Artist category. Esperanza who? What about Biebermania? But anyone who actually listened to Spalding’s brilliant 2010 album, Chamber Music Society, understood the depth of her talent. The spare, tasteful arrangements incorporated myriad styles—from jazz to Brazilian to classical to pop—unified by Spalding’s haunting vocals and impressive bass work.

Her newfound fame and popularity has allowed the 27-year-old Portland, Oregon, native to up the ante on her latest album, the eclectic Radio Music Society, which finds Spalding moving into ever-more complex arrangements for larger groups and also furthering her explorations into R&B and pop stylings. This time out, she is experimenting with horns as a dominant instrumental texture—both big bands and smaller ensembles—and there is a broader range of other instrumentation, more different musicians, and Spalding herself plays electric bass on a number of tracks. Album title notwithstanding, though, this is hardly a determined push in a more “commercial” direction.

“I don’t know what came first—the desire to do these larger ensembles or the means to do them,” the cheerful and articulate Spalding says from Manhattan as she packs for a European tour. “Chamber Music Society came about because of some experiments I was doing in college with writing for strings. With this one, I wanted to have some balance—because we had three strings, we’d have three horns. But then on some of the songs, three horns wasn’t really cuttin’ it, so I asked my teacher in Portland if he could give me a good deal on recording and showcasing his kids—the American Music Program—so that’s what we did to get to a big-band. There are some 12-year-olds in there, and you would never know that from listening to them.”

Those kids are the exception, not the rule, on Radio Music Society. Her core rhythm section mates are highly experienced holdovers from her previous album—drummer Terri Lynn Carrington and keyboardist Leo Genovese, and then the principal horn and reeds players are a combination of veterans such as trumpeter Darren Barrett, trombonist Jeff Galindo and saxophonist Joe Lovano, and potent younger talents like sax players Daniel Blake and Tivon Pennicott. The recently hot guitarist Lionel Loueke shows up on one song and monster drummer Jack DeJohnette on another. Spalding and Thara Memory handled the arrangements and Spalding produced. The main sessions were at Avatar (Studios A and C, both Neve rooms) in NYC with multiple Grammy-winning great Joe Ferla engineering; he later mixed the album at MSR in Manhattan. Additional recording for various specific parts took place at Kung Fu Bakery in Portland, Raydar Studios in Manhattan, Atlantic Sound Studios in Brooklyn, and Water Music in Hoboken, NJ. One track was mixed at Zobiz in Porter Ranch, CA.

Originally, Spalding had intended to cut Radio Music Society essentially live in the studio, with minimal overdubbing, as she had her previous three album projects, “but in the end that wasn’t practical because of how complex the arrangements were,” Ferla says, “so instead we worked on nailing the rhythm parts, nailing the horn parts, and then overdubbing more horn parts and lots of vocal parts.”

The songs were also treated somewhat differently from a sonic perspective, beginning with Carrington’s drums. According to Ferla, it was producer/rapper Q-Tip (of A Tribe Called Quest fame; he co-produced two tracks on Radio Music Society), who conceived of recording the drums “in a very dead iso booth with baffles around the drum kit—it was as dead as we could possibly make it. There was barely enough room for the drum kit and the drummer. There was no ambience whatsoever, and then the way the kit was specifically tuned and muffled in terms of tape and whatever they put on the heads, it really reminded me of when I made records in the ’70s.

“Q-Tips’s take, which I thought was brilliant, was to have this drum sound that basically had no resonance—no extra ring or anything—which left more room for everything else, and there’s so much else going on.”

As for the move to more electric bass textures, Spalding comments, “I wrote almost all of the album on piano, and usually at the point of writing I know which bass is going to be on it. Most of those songs were written at a time in my life where I wanted an excuse to play more electric bass, but I didn’t think anybody else would give me a gig playing electric, because they think I can’t play it, so I wrote it into the songs,” she adds with a laugh. She’s being modest, of course—she’s an exceptional bass player, acoustic or electric, and on one tune—the exquisite “Smile Like That”—she plays both. “Electric bass is a different aesthetic,” Ferla notes, “but it goes along with the kind of tunes that are on there.”

Ferla’s miking technique for Spalding’s distinctive standup bass sound: “I had three mics on it. I had a Neumann 87 by her fingers, a [Neumann] U47 down by an f-hole, and a [Neumann] 84 in the bridge, plus a DI. I used different combinations and balances of those four elements from song to song.” Electric bass was a single mic on Spalding’s amp and a DI.

For horns, “I love the Cole 4038s on brass and [Neumann] U67s on reeds; you can’t go wrong with those. When we’d cut horns, we’d have three players at time, but then we’d sometimes also overdub more parts.” The big-band parts with the American Music Program were recorded by Bob Stark in Portland.

Even with her preference for recording live in the studio, Spalding admits that “there’s always room for things changing in the studio. And afterward, in the editing process, too. By that I mean some of the forms work really nicely on paper, and then after listening to them recorded, I think, ‘Oops, that’s not concise enough,’ so I got in there with Joe and actually edited down some of the forms. Like, ‘Hold on Me’ used to have six movements, but Thara Memory said, ‘This should be three, because to me it sounds like a new blues,’ and I’m asking him to put a big-band track to it and it wasn’t concise. Eventually I cut it down to four because of the lyrics. He was right—all of a sudden the song made sense, it came to life and there was a way to balance the theme coming back around.”

This time out, all of Spalding’s vocals were done after the fact in separate vocal sessions “because most of the songs were too new to me and I hadn’t really learned to play them live and sing at the same time,” she says. “Sometimes I’d do vocals at the end of the night [at Avatar]. I like to sit with a song a bit and listen to what’s going on and really find the right solution for what the song needs. The downside of producing your own record is you have so many things in your head about each song, it can take a while to actually hear it from the outside to be able make good vocal decisions.” Spalding’s vocal chain was a Neumann U67 into Neve 1081 mic pre and an UA 1176 compressor/limiter.

Ferla was the mixer (but not tracking engineer) on Chamber Music Society, which he describes as a “really straight forward, beautiful record; simple to mix. This latest one is such a mixture of genres—that R&B-ish dead drum sound and a lot of electric bass; not really ‘dance’ but still R&B—and then her very complex arrangements on top of that: the multiple vocals and horns and all the other things in there. I think her vocals are stellar on this and to me, it was like, ‘Okay, I’ve got to really feature her as a vocalist and also as a bass player, and put that whole thing together to highlight her, yet still maintain that R&B thing and have her arrangements come through big and strong.’ It was really a difficult task—like fitting a size 10 foot into a size 6 shoe.

“I mixed it at MSR [formerly Right Track] on the Euphonix [System 5] digital board without her, but we were emailing mixes back and forth constantly, so she was right on top of it at all times. I didn’t really use any outboard gear—just a Lexicon digital 480 and a 960. My main focus was fitting in all these different parts and utilizing every trick in the book to make everything work. I had six or seven reverbs—horns were in a reverb, strings were in a different reverb, piano—everything had its own space and I was trying to utilize the panning and the space I created to allow things to be audible and to have everything be the right volume. When the horns came in, I wanted them to be loud and powerful. When the vocals came in, same thing. To make everything loud and clear when it’s that dense is really tricky, so I tried to create an almost three-dimensional space with a good amount of depth. All in all it was probably the most difficult record I’ve ever mixed. But it came out beautifully. Those arrangements are just brilliant, as are the performances.”

Blair Jackson is senior editor of Mix magazine.