Is This Jazz?: Esperanza Exposes the Process


The brilliance of Esperanza Spalding has been on display for well over a decade. While keeping a firm footing in the jazz world, she stretches her arms out into a multitude of sonic landscapes, simultaneously pulling ideas from soul, funk, pop, avant-garde and classical music, then weaving them back into her previous sensibilities to conjure forth elements previously unheard. Although we knew of all this, what wasn’t known was how she wrote and composed, what her process was, or what part of her craft gave her access to all of it. Then, she gave us Exposure.

The essence of this project was that from September 12 through 15, Esperanza and a team of musicians, audio engineers and video producers would enter into a studio and for 77 hours straight esperanza spaldingto create a 10-song album, of which only 7,777 copies would ever be produced. All the music, lyrics and arrangements would be composed and recorded over the course of three days while a live stream was being broadcast out so that people all over the world could watch. Obviously an undertaking of this magnitude leaves open the potential for failure, but as the looming digital clock in the studio’s corner wound down to zero, what was left behind was a new, transcendent 10-song work and an experience unlike anything that came before it.

While there is so much to be unpacked from and written about Exposure, the core of the experience was to watch artists working through the craft. Absolutely there was fantastic music being made at all hours, and minds were melting from the awesome power these musicians wielded, but to watch these titans struggle to find the right notes or Esperanza’s joy as she deciphers the perfect phrase is mesmerizing. As a musician who has also spent many hours documenting the path on a podcast (, most of the focus is on the effort that goes into the craft and how taxing it can be. At the level that Esperanza and her cohorts are on, it is indescribably valuable to watch them face similar issues and see how they push through, not only as a way to learn but to see that you aren’t alone. My friend is a music educator who showed her students the project as it unfolded, and her thoughts on the impact it had on her kids are essential to this.

“With it being so close to the start of the year, the kids are just beginning piano class, starting chorus and beginning to explore different genres in music appreciation,” she said. “This gave them an opportunity to see that even top musicians have their voice crack or make little mistakes; that music doesn’t just happen, it’s truly a process. One class got to see her work out the bass line and simple melody for a track and the next day she happened to be hammering out the lyrics for the same song. They thought it was the coolest thing to see that song come to life. Some have now expressed interest in creating beats or composing, and others have already asked questions about poetry and how it’s linked to music. The possibilities with that feed, as an educator, are endless and I hope she releases it. Teaching in an inner city/urban school, it was amazing that it wasn’t a stuffy white dude doing it. It was a bad ass chick of African-American and Hispanic decent. It was a well-spoken, talented woman of color making killer music. They don’t see enough of that.”

Jazz is about improvising, working toward creative solutions, pushing the boundaries of self and art, and forming communities to make something. Esperanza’s musical prowess made the art possible, but she ended up with much more than an album. She showed us her tireless pursuit, exposed the raw reality of what the craft takes and motivated hundreds of thousands of people to keep creating or to start (shout out to Team 77). She forged a community that is founded on love and joy, and inspired all who got to bear witness. She changed lives.

Bravo, Esperanza. #feedfernando

Happening Around Town:

The John Allmark Jazz Orchestra; first Monday monthly @ The Met (Pawtucket)

Is This Jazz?; first Friday bimonthly @ AS220 (Providence)

Allary At Arias; Sundays @ Arias Lounge (Providence)

Groove Merchants; Mondays @ Fifth Element (Newport)

Jazz JamTuesdays @ Ten Rocks (Pawtucket)

Groove E TuesdayTuesdays @ Murphy’s Law (Pawtucket)

Parlour Jazz Jam; third Sunday monthly @ The Parlour (Providence)

Jeff Platz Quartet’s Modern Sound Series; last Sunday monthly @ Tea In Sahara (Providence)

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Ben Shaw is a local composer and performer. Find him at or on Twitter @ahueofshaw.

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