WHAT DO THE TOP 10 HITS of pop diva Halsey have in common with the virtuosic and metrically complex jazz-fusion of the band Polyrhythmic? Not much—except for the inspired participation of keyboardist/composer Greg Spero.
Calling Spero “versatile” is a world-class understatement. On the straight-ahead jazz front, Greg has performed with the Buddy Rich Big Band and Cuban trumpet virtuoso Arturo Sandoval. He’s created hip-hop tracks with Mos Def, Ski Beatz, and Digital Underground’s Shock G. He performs solo sets of improvised electronic music. Perhaps it’s symbolic that his discography includes Radio Over Miles, an album of Radiohead/Miles Davis mash-ups.

For Chicagoan Spero, mixing styles makes perfect sense. “Whether it’s producing hip-hop music, abstract polyrhythmic jazz, or straight-up pop, my goal is to get into a space where I can create something that describes me,” he says. “Something that describes the emotions I feel. My connections to the people around me. The connection I feel with the audience when I play.”

With Halsey, Spero serves as keyboardist and sound designer. His focus is tweaking sounds from the singer’s hits for maximum impact in the ever-larger venues where she performs. “Everything you hear in the live show is something that I’ve put together,” says Greg.


GregSpero portraitSpero, 31, sees surprisingly little difference between performance and engineering tasks. “I approach sound design in a similar way to how I approach a jazz solo. I start with a blank slate, or perhaps some set of constraints, and then I go from there. If it’s a hip-hop track, I usually start out with a drum beat or with a sound I’m designing, and then I base everything else on that sound.”

It’s not rare for a musician to dabble in many genres, but few can deliver music in each style with equal conviction. Spero suggests that the key to true stylistic breadth is an intense focus on rhythm. “I feel time differently from context to context,” he explains. “We’re talking about different languages in terms of where the beat is placed. Every rhythm has history and context, the same way that languages like English, French, or Spanish do. I’ve explored many avenues, like Afro-Cuban rhythms, or the way the swing of a bossa nova differs from the swing of a hip-hop track. I feel like a multi-linguist when it comes to rhythm.”

Whether he’s speaking jazz, pop, or hip-hop, Spero relies on Yamaha keyboards. “For the Halsey project I use a CP4, especially for piano sounds. It’s my favorite keyboard for piano emulation. In fact, one Halsey song, ‘Trouble,’ features only piano and voice, so a great piano sound is essential. The Rhodes sounds are really nice as well, and I like the feel of the CP4’s wooden keys. I also just got the new Montage 7, which I’m very eager to explore. I have a feeling I’m going to have a lot of fun, because I’m a total nerd when it comes to synthesizers.”

Meanwhile, Spero plays acoustic piano when performing with Polyrhythmic. “Yamaha has been fantastic,” he says. “They’ve been bringing an acoustic grand piano to all the shows. I often get the CFX, an absolutely gorgeous nine-foot grand.”

Polyrhythmic has yet to record its first album, but Spero offers a preview: “Because I’m the composer, I’m writing all the music. It’s a little bit more on the epic side than my previous material. Most of these pieces are between 12 and 18 minutes long. I’ve also gotten together specific band members who are essential to the nature of the group. So it’s more of a collaborative effort than anything I’ve done in the past.” Spero’s new bandmates are drummer Mike Mitchell, bassist Hadrien Feraud, and nylon-string guitarist Marco Villarreal.

“The main purpose of the group is exploring polyrhythms,” notes Greg. “In most of the compositions, there’s a quarter-note pulse. But other parts are moving in different cycles, like 17/16. The first album will feature acoustic piano, though I’ll probably bring in more analog electric instruments on the second album. I foresee the third album being fully synthesized and electric.”

As tasty as that sounds, Spero’s other new venture is even more flavorful. “I call the project ‘sense art’ because it incorporates all the senses,” says Greg. “We have a whiskey tasting combined with a chocolate tasting. It’s top-of-the-line, gourmet chocolates, the best that you can get. We pair those with Glenfiddich whiskies and have whisky/chocolate pairings throughout the concert. We built out the concert space with gigantic abstract paintings. The whole thing is designed to be an enthralling of the senses."

“What ties it all together is music,” says Greg. “I’m not talking about business and marketing. I’m talking about looking into yourself and pulling out a unique creative journey that describes who you are as a human being.”