Two months ago, Greg Spero had a career-defining moment performing on “Saturday Night Live” with the pop singer Halsey. It’s also the day he walked away from the job.
Spero had spent the last three years helping build up the “Bad at Love” sensation as her wizard sound designer and keyboard artist, a collaboration that began with Halsey’s initial gig in Los Angeles for 80 people to sold-out world tours and finally the famous stage at 30 Rockefeller Center.
“It was an incredible and sweet moment knowing we’d be parting ways,” he recalls. “We shared this experience that’s really rare, to start so small and take it to this place that few artists get to. We were partners in making this happen. I never missed a single show for three years. But [by ‘SNL’], I felt I had done what I needed to do there.”
SPIRIT FINGERS When: 9 p.m. Tuesday Where: The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia Tickets: $10 Info: (773) 227.4433; ticketfly.com
Spero, who grew up in Highland Park, is the son of a classical pianist mother and a blues pianist father who ran about in jazz circles — starting with playing in his father’s band, the SlackDaddies, at the age of 14 and moving on to gigs with Frank Catalano and the Buddy Rich Big Band and working with Robert Irving III before winning an award for best jazz entertainer at the Chicago Music Awards in 2013. Spero had never intended on doing anything in the pop realm until the opportunity fell in his lap as he struggled as a musician in the competitive creative pool of Los Angeles.
“Pop music is great, don’t get me wrong. And Halsey is some of the best in pop music; however, it’s also true that it’s meant for easy consumption. That’s where culture is,” says Spero. “I became frustrated playing the same songs with no improv every night. I needed more depth. My mission in life is to support a cultural wave where people seek something outside of what they know, and expand their life and minds and push against this clickbait culture we have been so bombarded with.”
Spero’s new band, Spirit Fingers (as well as a record label and music web series from his Tiny Room studios) does that with an avant-garde fusion of retro jazz, modern classical and pop and R&B that he says was influenced by his musical upbringing as well as the sounds he was hearing when Halsey toured with The Weeknd. The group includes guitarist Dario Chiazzolino, bassist Hadrien Feraud and drummer Mike Mitchell but is primarily the brainchild of Spero, who worked on the project for a year every night while isolating himself on tour buses as the rest of the Halsey crew went out and celebrated.
“It was born out of this cabin fever and some relationship turmoil going on at the time, but also I created it around the beginning of this tumultuous time we are in right now politically and universally,” says Spero, commenting on some of the deeply complex tracks like “Find” that have different time signatures and utilize multiple parts on the piano in a dizzying and gratifying blend of styles. “At the time I didn’t know what I was writing; I was exercising my brain,” continues Spero, who is a practitioner of Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism that he says helps expand his creative mind. It’s something he learned from his mentor Herbie Hancock.
“He has played such a huge influence in my life,” says Spero, recalling meeting the famed bandleader and composer when Hancock had a gig at Ravinia years ago. “I put on a suit and tie and looked like I was supposed to be there, I just walked backstage in the middle of the afternoon while he was rehearsing.” Initially Spero was trying to share his thoughts on Hancock’s composition for “Actual Proof” and also ask him for piano lessons, but after hitting a wall, he lucked out when one of Hancock’s associates whispered in Spero’s ear, “Ask him how to bring out your greatest creative potential.” That got Hancock talking. “It sparked a conversation not just about music but about life, and it became this shift for me mentally.”
On Tuesday, Spero plays The Hideout in a hometown show that brings him back to the small listening rooms he cut his teeth on. “I prefer them. Sure there’s an energy and excitement to getting on stage at Madison Square Garden for 18,000 people, but you also lose a lot there.” With Spirit Fingers and the small club gigs, he says he again feels at home musically. “I have found my voice but only found the beginning of it. There’s still so much to do.”