Chicago-based pianist Greg Spero got his start in music in ways both familiar and unconventional. In high school, he pursued the “singer/songwriter” route and joined the jazz band because “it seemed like the thing to do”—i.e., a way to meet people and stay involved while learning music. But he also joined a band with one of his closest relatives—his father. “He quit, but I stayed in it, with a bunch of 40-year-old guys,” he says, laughing. Spero’s parents are both musicians—his dad a country and rock producer—his mom a classical pianist—so music played a role early on. But it was his high school jazz band teacher, alto saxophonist Dan Brame, who inspired him to pursue jazz more seriously, which resulted in Spero choosing to major in jazz performance at the University of Illinois. Acoustic is Greg Spero’s first major release on the BlueJazz label. It features Makaya McCraven on drums, and Matt Ulery on bass. When asked about the choice to not only make an entirely acoustic album, but to title the project as such, Spero says that he knew this aesthetic choice would be a surprise to people who know his music.
“I’m very grounded in fusion. I wanted to do an album that took out all the bells and whistles and allowed me to really express my truest voice possible. I’ve always loved playing acoustic piano more than playing electric instruments. And this allowed me to really use the piano to the fullest extent that I could.” He does plan on pursuing a project dedicated to digitally produced music, however, for a future release called Electric. The attention he’s received for being a fusion-based artist comes, in part, from his work with hip-hop artists like Ski Beatz and Shock G among others.
What’s at the foundation of Greg Spero’s music, however, isn’t hip-hop or fusion, but rather, his spiritual beliefs. A devotee of Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism, he came into this practice through the relationship he built with one of his musical idols, Herbie Hancock. “Herbie’s been one of my major inspirations for piano my whole life, and I’ve always had this dream of studying with him. So I decided to ask him—if I could study with him.” In 2009, Spero sneaked into Hancock’s sound check at Highland Park’s Ravinia Festival to ask what he describes as a “long list of musical questions.” What ensued (after a lot of waiting around for Hancock to finish his sound check) was a long conversation about Hancock’s spirituality, which had been imparted to him through Buster Williams. “I was really, really inspired after that, and decided that I had to give it a shot. I didn’t know how into it I would be, but if my primary inspiration on piano said that this was one of the foundations of his creativity, I decided that I needed to try it out.”
Not long thereafter, Spero took a month-long trip to Thailand, and says he “came back amazingly inspired by the peace that I found out there. The peace in seeing people who are living on a dollar a day, and not succumbing to all the consumeristic temptations that we have in this culture. They’re completely shed of that in a lot of Thailand. And that really made me reevaluate my own personal values.”
Upon his return to the States he began writing his album, several songs directly inspired by the trip including “Hills,” “Universe,” and “Letting It Go.” “Hills” charts the experience of motor-biking through the lush greenery of the mountains in Thailand; “Universe” seeks to capture, in musical form, the Buddhist saying “3000 realms in a single moment.” “Letting It Go,” is about his decision to pursue a new spirituality, and the fears he had to release in doing so.
The spiritual aspect of Greg Spero’s life is another reason he decided to make an entirely acoustic album. “I love using synthesizers. It basically makes a new world of textures that I can use in my music. But I feel like when you take all those away, when you break it down, you really get the most clarity into a person’s soul….When you play on an instrument that doesn’t have electric barriers to it, like pressing a key that tells a computer to make a sound, but pressing a key that vibrates a string, that’s vibrating wood—it basically comes more to life, and allows your deepest self to be expressed more clearly.”
If it seems like his aesthetics and spirituality go hand-in-hand, it’s because they do. He uses words like “chemistry,” “love,” “synergy,” “expression,” “soul,” and “peace,” when talking about his aesthetic practices, just as someone, speaking on their spirituality, might choose those terms. Music, to him, is “more than just the sound that you’re producing. It’s something greater than anything you can hear,” he says. “It’s something that works on a greater level for humanity.”
Listen & Buy Acoustic Here
Words by Kyla Marshell