Experimenting with Instrumental Textures on Radio Music Society
Interview extras and outtakes
by Blair Jackson
More from Esperanza Spalding on the making of Radio Music Society:
I gather this album changed a bit over time as you got further into making it.
That’s right. This project started as one idea and then the reality of it changed from what I originally thought it was going to be, as often happens in the record-making process. I thought it would be a rhythm section mixed with a horn trio, but that changed and it seemed like an organic evolution as the songs were coming closer and closer to being finished arrangements. Like on “Cinnamon Tree,” for example, I didn’t really expect to have horns. I thought it would just be a piece with three strings, because that’s the way I wrote it, but then I thought, “Maybe some horns would work in here, and we can also use a synth line,” and not thinking about what the final instrumentation might be, I just kept adding things: “Oh, that helps. So does this.” And because I had a larger budget this time around I knew I could probably afford to pay the people to be on the song.
What are your demos like?
My demos are recordings of rehearsals. First I make a demo of it of me playing it on piano with maybe some bass. Then I record the first rehearsals and those become the demos we work off of when I have the finished arrangements.
What arrangers have influenced you? I feel like I hear hints of Gil Evans in places, and maybe some of that Joe Zawinul /Weather Report vibe on other things….
I listen to so many people. I do listen to Joe Zawinul. I do love Gil Evans. I really love Gil Goldstein [who co-produced Chamber Music Society with Spalding]. I love Wayne Shorter’s arranging. I love Sammy Nestico and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis orchestra—although you probably don’t hear that in the way I arrange, because I’m an amateur still. Right now I’m studying Sammy Nestico. I’m going through the Inside the Score book [which features detailed analyses of eight different classic jazz band charts], and his is the first piece. So I’m hashing through that and experimenting with some of the techniques.
But all sorts of things affect the arranging decisions you make. Some of it comes from a really solid understanding of composition and harmonic arc and what works in a harmonic chord and who’s doubling what effect. What effect does this or that technique have? And a lot of the time you’re following a more intuitive feedback loop, where you’re just listening to what a song needs and how we can get it there. And that can often be something that lies outside a particular arranging rule or technique, but you find it based on a feeling for the song, or maybe it was something you heard that had nothing to do with arranging. For instance, I went to the Amazon rain forest before I finished this project, and I think hearing the polyrhythms in that music and the multiple interlaying melodies probably affected some of the decisions I made. So, I get ideas from everywhere and anywhere.
Did you ever take any recording courses? Are you relaxed in the studio, or is it stressful for you?
No, I never took any courses. Whatever I know I’ve learned from making records and watching people in the studio. I love being in the studio! The only time it really feels stressful; is at the end when you know time is running out and you’ve gotta pick up the pace and get through it. And if I don’t feel we’ve really hit what we’re going for in a song, I do start to get a little anxious.
What’s going to happen to the songs on the new album when you take them on the road? Do you stick to charts or do they expand?
They’re going to expand, because I want to learn what it’s like and explore playing with a really large ensemble. Ultimately I’d love to do something with a big- band, but I can’t afford to do that these days, and I’m not ready to do that. So I’m taking out seven horns—like half of a big-band—and I’m working Thara Memory and Greg Hopkins and at some point I want to work with Gil [Goldstein] to rework some of the music for that kind of ensemble. I think the music will lend itself well to that kind of playing and to that sound, that texture.
Here’s my Barbara Walters question: If you could hang out a weekend with one jazz guy from a previous era, who would it be?
Joe Zawinul. I’d want to be there for the whole process—arranging, rehearsing, recording, editing, mixing. Joe’s records are like… “Wow!” The stuff that Joe did was mind-blowing and nothing else from that period sounded at all like what he was doing. Hey, he was a genius; what can you say?