Spirit Fingers: an espresso with Greg Spero

Image Credits: Spirit Fingers © Greg Spero

September 12, 2020

“Jazz isn’t owned, it is an ideal, lived by anyone who chooses to live it, and I am proud to be a Jazz artist.” Greg Spero

> Ivano Rossato 

What evolution do you think is in Peace compared to the first album Spirit Fingers, and what has changed in the interaction between musicians?
The album Peace is a representation of an open mind. I believe that to find peace, we must let go of aspects of our identity that we cling to, and open our hearts and souls to the perspectives and lives of other people. In the first self-titled record of SPIRIT FINGERS, I was uncompromising. My vision was immalleable, and I molded my surroundings to fit a very specific sonic idea I had in my head. It was an exhausting process, and though it resulted in one of the works I’m most proud of, it was an experience of creation in solitude, even when recording with a group.
After accomplishing my initial vision, and as I continued to see the world becoming more at odds with itself, I felt it was time to loosen my grip on the output of the band, open my heart and mind to the sonic landscape in which I’d been so immersed for so long, take into account cultural tastes, and allow something more organic to naturally form from the hearts and minds of Mike Mitchell, Max Gerl, Dario Chiazzolino, and the other brilliant artists with whom I was creating.
I came into the Peace recording session with four written songs, and the rest of it was improvised and written on the spot. You can hear the reminiscence of my previous stylistic choices in NAILS, but my new dedication to letting go of control allowed for improvised compositions like “Goodbye” to manifest during exhilarating spontaneous performances during the four days we had to record. I drew inspiration from many of my peers, including Makaya McCraven, Christian Scott, Kamasi Washington, and Aaron Parks. I borrowed from Makaya’s production arsenal which we had been exploring together since our first sessions in Chicago 14 years ago. I let go of a strict vision for what would come out musically, and allowed what would be to manifest. The result was something that is much more ‘now’.

Jazz is just a word. A marketing ploy. A way of dividing people. People get so territorial about the words they pick to describe what they love, that they forget about what they love. Jazz points in a direction, toward a set of ideals that have resulted in a breadth of musical language that has mistakenly become the focal point of the word’s attention. But the essence of what people are looking for when they ask “what is Jazz” can be found more outside of music than inside it. It can be found in Herbie Hancock’s dedication to the youth, his Buddhist practice, and his dedication to world peace. It can be found in the mourning and protest of Coltrane’s song Alabama that he wrote in response to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. It can be found in the many black and white integrated groups that persisted and quietly fought against the racism that plagued our history. It’s found in the departure from set melodies, in the willingness to improvise, in the willingness to embrace the souls and hearts and minds of people. Jazz isn’t owned, it is an ideal, lived by anyone who chooses to live it, and I am proud to be a Jazz artist.

What compositional process do you usually follow?
For PEACE, my process was organic. This was a big departure from the process I used for SPIRIT FINGERS’ first album, which was much more calculated and regimented. Most of the songs on PEACE were borne out of free improvisations that the band collectively composed. I then took these improvisations, and edited them into more succinct compositions. After I developed the free improvisations into more of a structure, I would often bring in a guest to add to the piece. Judi Jackson was in the studio with us for many of the initial improvisations, but other artists like Jonathan Scales and Braxton Cook did their own recordings on the tracks after I had fully composed the first version of the track. I then took the additional material that Jonathan and Braxton integrated, and chopped that up, using their pieces of vocabulary as new source material to play with as I built the final iterations of the works.
How did the collaboration with the five guest artists on the album come about, especially Judi Jackson who sings on four tracks?
My experience with Judi began with a fiery romance that sparked a beautiful musical relationship. In fact the music was the first thing that drew us together; a jam session in a little club in Europe after one of my performances on the Makaya McCraven tour. We circled back when Spirit Fingers toured in England, and she began her official collaboration with the group on stages in London. When it was time to record the record, I wanted her voice to be an integral part of our new direction, so we arranged for her to come to LA from London and record with the band. Though the fire of the romance eventually burned us both to a crisp, the musical connection remains infallible.
Thinking about your experience in various musical contexts, what characteristic does all the great artists you collaborated with have in common?
I’m always trying to play with people I look up to. The Miles Electric Band has living legends with such a depth of musical knowledge, I grow personally every time I tour with the group. Same with Makaya McCraven’s band. I look up to my peers in Chicago for the unique artistry they each convey; Makaya with his fearless sense of abandon, Junius with his freedom over rock-solid time and feel, Marquis with his velvet tone and depth of musicality. Throughout my life, I’ve tried to surround myself with people I can learn from, people I love and respect, people who are genuine and true to their character, and people who are better than me at something I want to learn.
The album has a balance between many different musical genres: was it a natural creative process or a goal set from the beginning?
The process of this album was totally natural. There was no real beginning or end to the process. It still feels like there’s more to do…and I still have more cuts from that session to work on. The process of this album was totally natural. There was no real beginning or end to the process. It still feels like there’s more to do…and I still have more cuts from that session to work on.
What’s the next step for Spirit Fingers?
Touring. Lots of touring. As soon as we can. Aside from that, I have a lot of music I’ve been working on, and only some of it is Spirit Fingers. My label Tiny Records is releasing a new track every week in a series called Tiny Room Sessions, and Spirit fingers has three more in the pipeline to be released as live singles from our Tiny Room session. I’m in the process of editing and mixing a lot of new music including The Chicago Experiment which will be released on Ropeadope Records in 2021. I brought in a bunch of my musical colleagues from Chicago to record a new body of work that describes my history in the Chicago scene. Our first single, Maxwell Street, is out now, and includes Makaya McCraven, Marquis Hill, Joel Ross, Jeff Parker, Irvin Pierce, Darryl Jones, and myself. I’m really excited to release the rest of these sessions. I’ve also recorded a body of improvised works with my good friend Miguel Atwood Ferguson who I also consider a spiritual and musical mentor. I’m not sure if I’ll release that on Tiny Records on another independent label. Also a duo record with Mike Mitchell. If you watch my personal Spotify, you’ll see a bunch of albums released from my back-catalog that haven’t seen the light of day in many years. You’ll also see a new single released every Friday for the next several months, from collaborations I did with a bunch of great artists for our Tiny Room Session series. Anyway, I can’t wait to get back to Italy. We’ve had so much fun touring from Cagliari to Milan to Rome. Until then, I’ll bid you, arrivederci!  
Spirit Fingers: An espresso with Greg Spero copyright Jazzespresso 2020.
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