Bassist Esperanza Spalding just won a Grammy Award for Best New Artist, rising above the likes of Justin Beiber, Drake and other more mainstream artists. Here is an article that originally appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner following an interview with her in September 2009:
Leading ladies are nothing new in jazz. Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, Nina Simone and, more recently, Patti Austin and Nora Jones fronted jazz ensembles. Yet, in the earliest jazz movements when most jazz singers also played instruments, like Vaughan or Carter at the piano, it wasn’t appropriate for them to play and sing. Instead, they were out front where their vocal attributes became their main instruments.
That’s different now, the barrier being broken by Simone, who was never far from her piano, and more recently through Jones. Esperanza Spalding takes advantage of this now-accepted approach but adds another unexpected twist — she also plays the upright bass.
While an integral part of most jazz bands, the bass isn’t typically strummed by a singing band leader. Spalding, though, believes her vocals — and the fact that she sings in English, Spanish and Portuguese — keep people in tuned to her music.
“I think the leading comes from the voice. I think a lot of the time people can identify with the voice as a lead instrument,” she explained by phone from Los Angeles. “Sonically, the bass is going to cut through, but most people’s ears are not accustomed to keeping their ears fixed on the bass. Melodically, the bass doesn’t ring or cut through the way people can latch on to it. I guess I take advantage of the fact that there is a voice in the band so that is automatically something that allows people can get into it as a lead instrument.”
Spalding began studying the cello but came to the bass as a teenager. It was a “physically intriguing instrument,” she said.
“If you were to just walk up to that instrument and play any open string and listen to the sound it made in a quiet room, you’d see the appeal. It’s really wild. It still trips me out every once in awhile. It’s really amazing, just the tone and the space that it’s resonating in, and to hold it just sends this feeling through my whole skeleton. This is what captivated my interest in the beginning, and it never stopped being interesting.”
Spalding turned that interest into a love affair, one that took her to the Berklee School of Music at 16, and eventually she became the youngest professor in the school’s history. Following gigs and sessions with the likes of Pat Metheny and Joe Lovano, Spalding got to work on her own material. Her debut album “Esperanza” came out in May 2008. It features deft compositional skills that drift through traditional or modern jazz approaches with touches of Latin flare or soul overtones.
Her work caught the attention of President Barack Obama, who twice invited her to perform at the White House. Listening to her album, it’s not surprising she got the invitation. Nothing else in jazz right now approaches what Spalding is doing.
“Mela” features a bossa nova background rhythm and scatting-style vocal, yet the composition veers in different directions, with bop-like horn work and progressive piano leads. “Precious,” on the other hand, is a borderline soul piece with flecks of jazz acting as the glue that holds the two styles together. For “Love in Time,” Spalding becomes a vintage torch singer, working over a traditionally styled arrangement that feels poised to break into free-form improvisation at any moment.
In fact, Spalding said she and her band (Otis Brown III on drums, Leo Genovese on piano and Ricardo Vogt on guitar) embrace improvisational jazz when the mood strikes — and when she thinks the audience is ready to come along for the ride.
“As long as it feels like everybody is involved. We’re there, we’re getting paid and it’s a gift to do this for so many people,” she said. “If we’re going to take a trip off to lala land, everybody’s got to be on board with us. We want to make sure people’s attentions are there so they can come with us.
“(Jazz) is very liberating,” she added. “Jazz can be long and rambling, but we don’t run into that problem too often. Sometimes we can get lost and go off on a little trip, but lots of time we are pretty concise.”
Spalding added that she has written plenty of new compositions since “Esperanza” came out, but wouldn’t confirm she’ll perform any of them during her first visit to Fairbanks. Then again …
“It’s terrible trying to keep them under our hat,” she said, with a laugh. “We have all these tunes we want to play. Our sets just keep getting longer and longer and longer.”
And that is rarely a bad thing. —Glenn BurnSilver
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March Beer Notes:
March 1: Bottled my Belgian Saison (BS!) w/coriander, orange peel and cardamom. Nice pale orange color
March. 1: Jolly Lama offers this advice: "Drink this orange-peel infused IPA and karma will be strong."
March 3: Salt in beer? A lip-smackin' yes with Magic Hat's new Saint Saltan. Subtle aftertaste of salt balances coriander on crisp ale.
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