By Lara Downes
To be Esperanza Spalding is to be many things that myths are made of — the myths of genius, of creativity, of beauty, of success and stardom. Just to be a female bass player in the man's world of jazz is to be a unicorn, that most mythical creature. To have, on top of that, a voice that spins gold and casts spells — to win a Grammy for an album literally called 12 Little Spells. The possibilities for myth, magic and fairytale are endless.
But Esperanza Spalding is very real. She's grounded in the pursuit of truth before fantasy, determined to sing songs that avoid the same old stories, to create work that defies convenient endings.
At the moment, she's busy deconstructing an actual Greek myth while taking on the fabulous beast that is opera. Her self-produced and crowdfunded project Iphigenia is a collaboration with mentor/creative partner Wayne Shorter. His groundbreaking improvisation – and legendary quartet of musicians at the center – mixes classical and jazz forms in a score set to Esperanza's poetic and subversively radical libretto. Together, the music and text reveal a new perspective into this ancient story that, in its traditional form, would have us believe that Iphigenia was born to be sacrificed. What if we let her tell her own story and make her own ending?
In this conversation, we talk about our power to liberate the victims of historical sacrifice — in myth, in opera, in the day-to-day experience of being human.
To deconstruct also means to rebuild, and Esperanza is applying her self-described "athletic creativity" to the construction of work intended to give shelter and safe haven from the dangers of our time. Her Songwrights Apothecary Lab, developed during this pandemic year, is a hybrid of songwriting workshop and guided research practice. She brings together musicians and practitioners of various disciplines — music therapy, neuroscience, Black American music, Sufism and South Indian Carnatic music — in the spirit of radical healing. It's a bold vision of what music can do, of what artists can do. And what can happen when we tell our own stories.