Esperanza Spalding’s Quest to Find Healing in Music
The bassist, vocalist and producer’s latest project is a therapeutic suite of songs sparked at an artists’ retreat she started during the pandemic.,
Esperanza Spalding has never been one to sit idle. Her wandering spirit has brought this 36-year-old musician major achievements over the past decade and pushed her work in new directions. In 2017, Spalding, a bassist, vocalist and producer, spent 77 straight hours in the studio, writing and arranging songs. The resulting album, “Exposure,” was pressed directly to CD and vinyl for a limited release of just 7,777 copies. Her next project, “12 Little Spells,” explored the healing power of music; each song correlated with a different body part.
Continuing in that vein, Spalding’s new release, a suite of three songs called “Triangle” due Saturday, is meant to bolster listeners, physically and emotionally. But this time, she’s setting her sights on pandemic tension.
“I was remembering ways that music had supported me,” she said on a recent call from her native Portland, Ore., “and wondering if we could go deeper into those themes.”
Spalding, an easygoing conversationalist who effortlessly accesses a broad range of scientific vernacular, lights up when unpacking the medicinal powers of music. But with her youthful curiosity and considered cadence, it doesn’t feel like you’re talking to a stuffy professor. Over the past year, she spent time building a retreat in Portland where like-minded artists can think and create without real-world interruptions. Occasionally, she jammed with other musicians, including the R&B luminary Raphael Saadiq and the jazz guitarist Jeff Parker.
The concerns about health and restoration in “Triangle” have been percolating in Spalding for quite some time. After the release of “12 Little Spells” in 2018, she took a semester off from teaching music at Harvard and moved to Los Angeles to finish writing an opera with the jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who had fallen ill.
“I was worried that Wayne’s health was not going to hold and we wouldn’t be able to finish his opera while he could see it,” Spalding said.
But over six months, he “completely sprang back to life,” she said. “He was like this wilted plant that finally got the water and just completely transformed before our eyes.”
When the pandemic took hold just a month later, she returned to Portland to start the retreat, where she and 10 other artists of color spent a month on a 5,000-acre property. It’s an idea Spalding had been considering for years.
“People use this weird uninvited breath of the pandemic to start the things that they’ve been putting off,” she said. “That definitely happened for me.”
The real spark for “Triangle” came at the end of the retreat, where after an event, she sat alone in a garden and wondered how she could assuage the stress of isolation. “We’ve all experienced being confined in a situation that we didn’t design and didn’t ask for,” she said. “A feeling like we can’t break out of it.”
She started drafting sketches for songs, with sounds rooted in Sufism and South Indian Carnatic and Black American music, and sent them to would-be collaborators.
The compositions — which were written in consultation with music therapists and neuroscientists — are supposed to elicit different emotions. The hypnotic “formwela 1,” carried by Spalding’s looping falsetto, is meant to aid self-soothing during stressful times. “So you learn the song and then you can play it for yourself in your head when you are stuck in a home and there’s no way the dynamic in that moment is going to change,” Spalding said. The ethereal “formwela 2” and soulful “formwela 3” are designed to calm interpersonal aggression and re-center the listener once the anger has dissipated.
Three months after the retreat ended, Spalding drove to Los Angeles to finish the music with the drummer Justin Tyson, a regular collaborator of hers; the keyboardist Phoelix, a go-to producer for the Chicago rappers Noname, Smino and Saba; and Saadiq, who’s worked with D’Angelo, Solange and Alicia Keys.
“Honestly, she didn’t need anything,” said Saadiq, who produced “Triangle” with Spalding and Phoelix. “She’s so moving in how she plays and how she thinks. I likened myself to Phil Jackson — like, why was he there when Michael Jordan was on the court?”
“Triangle” was recorded in his studio. When he heard the final version, he recalled the sound being so transformative that it helped him mentally reset. The music, Saadiq said, “took everything out of my head. I was 100 percent clear.”
When played in one go, “Triangle” burrows into your head and stays there, its meditative blend of chants, the sound of rain and vocal repetition meant to pacify prevailing anxiety. “It’s happening,” said Shorter, who plays on the third track. “It’s out there, but it’s interesting what she’s doing. She’s taking all kinds of chances and not giving up. If you see a fork in the road, which path should you take? Take both of them. She’s done that and is going to need good company.”
“Triangle” is being released through Spalding’s Songwrights Apothecary Lab, where she, other musicians and practitioners in music therapy and medicine will explore how songwriters blend therapeutic sounds into their work. This summer, she will host in-person pop-up labs throughout New York City, where residents can make appointments and have compositions created to fit their mood.
“Basically, what we want to do is hear what people are wishing for from the music, like, what do you need?” she said. “It’s an invitation to hear what you need a song for, and then that informs what we look for in our research, in our investigation.”
The songs created in the lab will be available on the website. Some of them will be featured when Spalding releases a full album this fall.
It seems like she’s not interested — at least not currently — in the conventional rigors of recording albums, putting them out and going on tour. These days, Spalding would rather improvise and see what happens. Still, she understands that her new initiatives might take some getting used to.
“It’s a lot,” she said. “I know part of the work I have to do is introducing and making legible the shape of this project and the offering, because it’s not an album and it’s not a concert. It’s not this and it’s not that.”
“I want the collaborative truth of it to be legible,” she added. “That’s part of what’s most important to me about sharing music.”