Esperanza Spalding: The Bass and the Face

esperanzaPeople often ask me what I’m listening to nowadays. Actually I don’t listen all that much – at least not as much as my friends who are surgically attached to their iPods. But right now I’m about two hours into a new jazz singer/bassist I’ve discovered named Esperanza Spalding, and I’m hooked.

I suppose having a site called PhilMusic.com invites people to assume I listen to music all the time. Actually, I prefer silence most times. When I do get into music listening phases, I get fairly obsessive. Last week, it was all about David Cook’s hip fresh re-interpretations of pop shmaltz that turned Americal Idol on its head. Then in the light of Journey‘s new album with Arnel Pineda, I revisited those mid-American 80’s fist shaking arena anthems, and googled the band to death.

I swing the pendulum from being a hard core jazz geek (a lifetime affliction, I’m afraid) to pop/rock dilettante. I guess you could say I will listen to anything as long as it’s good.

Well as of this moment, I’m a jazz geek again.

Just this morning, a post by Mel Orosa on my PinoyJazz mailing list alerted me to a YouTube performance of a new artist by the name of Esperanza Spalding from her appearance on Letterman on June 2. To wit:

What I saw was fairly appealing – an attractive woman of color leading a band on an adventurous R&B tune, playing what appeared to be a gargantuan acoustic bass. The looks and the sound were attractive enough, but you don’t too see too many petite young women playing such an ungainly instrument. In the hands of a Charles Mingus, Stanley Clarke, or Ron Carter the bass is just the right size and heft, but while rock and jazz is filled with many female bass players, they tended to play the electric bass *guitar* more often.

But in Spalding’s case, the bass was the main attraction, because she played it so well – while singing in a nimble vocal with the dexterity reminiscent of a young Dianne Reeves. (or for a pop reference, try Corinne Bailey Rae) The package – take an attractive girl with great vocal and instrumental chops – has been tried before, so you tend to pigeonhole these artists in a certain way. Admitedly my first impression was to say she was to the acoustic bass what Alicia Keys is to the acoustic piano. In jazz, the “package” has also been used to market pianist/singers Diana Krall and Norah Jones.

That’s a fairly dismissive stereotype. So I guess I will have to apologize to Ms. Spalding because I was dead-wrong.

YouTube always give you a number of choices, so through related videos, I caught other glimpses of Esperanza’s craft – and her depth. As it turned out, the performance on her television network debut on Letterman (and next week, on Jimmy Kimmel) may have been the light, watered-down version designed for middle-America, an audience not very friendly to jazz. But scrolling down, I discovered clips like a live gig in Copenhagen which finds her attacking the old chestnut “Body and Soul” and making it hip again, as well as singing sambas of varying tempos in Spanish and Portugese, and engaging in some prolonged scat passages that reminded me of Flora Purim in her prime – all while playing intricate lines on acoustic bass.

And there’s her electronic press kit where she talks of her musical evolution. A self-taught violinist from inner city Portland, Oregon, who gravitated to the bass.

It was just a short skip and jump to a full fledged Google search. Where you find the most amazing things.

Like finding out she was mainly home-schooled but ended up zipping through an accelerated program at the Berklee School of Music and was the youngest professor at the age of 20. And that she produced her first album for a Spanish label at the same age – a latin-tinged album called Junjo.

That she has gigged with heavy duty musicians like bassist Stanley Clarke, guitarist Pat Metheny, vibist Dave Samuels, toured with singer Patti Austin, and still performs with saxophonist Joe Lovano.

That her new album Esperanzaon Heads Up records is already topping the iTunes jazz charts.

That she made the cover of Bass Player magazine (June 2008).

And that you can check out snippets of her album on her own website (www.esperanzaspalding.com). A swinging, Spanish version in 5/4 time of Body and Soul is worth the price of admission, but there are also Brazillian sambas, straightahead jazz, and slyly sophisticated R&B (“Precious” which she performed on Letterman.)

Her first album “Junjo” is a little more adventurous, including Chick Corea’s “Humpty Dumpty” in the setlist. But it’s just as well that her breakout album is more accessible, so there’s some crossover appeal as well.

Bass Player’s profile gives us a capsulized version of where’s she’s been, and where she’s going.

Spalding, encouraged by her single mother, began playing violin at age five. A decade later she started playing bass, running blues patterns during Sunday-afternoon nightclub sessions with Portland singer/guitarist Sweet Baby James Benton. The young bassist joined a half-dozen bands, including local indie rock/pop group Noise For Pretend. Prior to attending Berklee, she spent a year studying classical music at Portland State University. In summer 2005, at age 20, she began teaching at Berklee, making her one of the college’s youngest-ever faculty members (Pat Metheny famously taught there at 19). On the horizon, she is developing two Berklee courses: one on singing and playing, and another on transcribing as a tool for learning harmony and theory. She’s also determined to write more horns and background vocals into her arrangements. “I want to expand the palette that I have for arrangements, and also home in on this counterpoint concept with the bass and voice—trying to use it in a way that’s effective, trying to integrate that into song forms and into performance.”

To modern audiences, jazz has been unfairly pigeonholed as boring and old fashioned. That’s a bad rap for those of us who always come back to it for a shot of hip inspiration.

If 24-year old Esperenza Spalding’s fresh take on jazz can bring fresh blood into the fan base, we can finally forgive the music industry for springing Norah Jones on us.


Update: Seems like I’m not the only one who’s picked up Esperanza on the musical radar. In the wake of the Letterman guesting, there seems to been a bit of a feeding frenzy of analysis about how she could be jazz’s “great young hope” with strong crossover potential.

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