To Bass Or Not To Bass

Photo by Vinicius “amnx” Amano on Unsplash

I discovered Esperanza Spalding in 2005. I was at a show celebrating George Wein (founder of the Newport Jazz Festival among many other things). Herbie Hancock played, and Spalding was the bassist in his band. They sounded great. I was an instant fan. I still remember when Herbie introduced the band, when he got to her, he said, “If you think she sounded good tonight, you should hear her sing.” He was right. She does it all. She’s a great bass player, a great singer, a great songwriter, a great band member, and a great bandleader. I’ve been following her career ever since, and I’m more of a fan today than I was then.

In 2019, Esperanza (I hope she’s OK with me using her first name. We don’t know each other. I mean no disrespect. It’s just calling her Spalding all the time feels too formal for someone who brings me joy.) released an album called 12 Little Spells. For the first time with one of her projects, I was disappointed. It’s hard to explain why. The album isn’t bad at all. I especially like the fourth track, Thang. It just didn’t have the same spark/energy/magic that I’d come to expect from her other releases. I couldn’t come up with any reason for the difference until I read the liner notes and discovered that she hadn’t played bass on the album. I can’t be sure that was the reason, but it made me suspicious. I couldn’t help but wonder why she hadn’t played bass.

A few weeks ago, Esperanza Spalding was notreble.com’s Bass Player to Know. Even though I already knew her, I read the piece. At the bottom, there was a link to another No Treble article called Esperanza Spalding: No More Bass? from 2018 that I hadn’t read when it was originally published. The article quotes from an interview where Esperanza explains why she didn’t play bass on 12 Little Spells. Basically she says she wasn’t in a place where she could practice the three to four hours a day it takes to play at the level she expects from herself. She decided it was better to hire a bass player rather than give a performance that wasn’t as “free” as it could have been.

I am of two minds about her decision/interview. Part of me loves it. I’ve always found it frustrating when musicians act like music just happens. It takes a lot of hard work to make good music. To hear her say publicly that it takes three to four hours of practice each day to play at the level she wants is wonderful. It’s also great to hear that she has high standards. Plus, the implication of this is that Esperanza really respects her audience.

The other part of me, though, found it kind of frustrating. I kept thinking about my disappointment in 12 Little Spells. I have no proof it would have changed anything, but I really wish she had played bass on the album, even if it wasn’t as “free” as it might have been. It was a little hard to explain the feeling to myself. Finally, I realized it has to do with what I want to get out of music, connection. I’m not interested in listening to the best (whatever that means) musicians. I’m interested in connecting with the music and the musicians.

When listening to a solo artist, one thing that enhances the connection is when the artist feels completely integrated with the band. I’d rather listen to someone play with their working band than all-star guests. And I want them to be a part of the band. Look at some Aretha Franklin concerts. She used to split her time. She’d be at the piano part of the show and standing and just singing for the other part. It was always better (I’m not exaggerating, I mean always) when she was at the piano. I have nothing against Burniss Travis (the bass player on 12 Little Spells). I’d be happy to connect with him in the future. But, I feel like that little bit of added distance kept me from connecting with Esperanza like I did with her other albums.

Maybe I’m crazy. It’s so hard to figure out why we like what we like. It might have been the weather on the day I first listened to the album. But, this is the best I can come up with. I’m still very much looking forward to Esperanza’s next project. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that she’ll play bass on it.

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