ACE OF BASS
Esperanza Spalding may just be the hottest thing in jazz right now, writes Andra Jackson
As the glitterati at the 53rd Grammy Awards in Los Angeles in 2011 sat ready to applaud the pronouncement of the best new artist, there was an air of anticipation. After all, the contenders included Canadian teenager and rising pop star Justin Bieber, whose first studio album, My World, had gone triple platinum in the US. He was favoured to win. Another strong contender was fellow Canadian singer and rapper Drake, whose first studio album, Thank Me Later, debuted at No 1 in the US Billboard top 200 charts that year. Other nominees were Florence and the Machine, Mumford and Sons and Esperanza Spalding, a 26-year-old jazz bassist, singer and composer.
Spalding had been hailed as one of the promising new talents on the jazz front. Her credits included a 2006 album release, Junjo, and tours with well-regarded jazz artists such as saxophonist Joe Lovano, guitarist Pat Metheny and R&B jazz singer Patti Austin. Then there was that small matter of having US President Barack Obama personally choose her to perform at the Nobel Peace Prize concert in Oslo when he was named the 2009 laureate. A jazz musician had never won the best new artist Grammy, and the pundits rated Spalding an outside chance.
The musician recounts how, as her name was read out, “one big hush fell over the theatre”. The silence was broken when one of five friends who had accompanied her to the gala event let out a resounding whoop. But backstage after the presentation the focus was elsewhere. The scene that awaited her was one that “encapsulates the reality of the commercial world”, she says.
“Even though I won the Grammy, Justin Bieber was in front of me having all the pictures taken on the red carpet, which is usually where the Grammy winners take pictures with the Grammy,” she says, the indignation still present in her voice. “So it didn’t f..king matter in his world. You know what I mean, like, I won the Grammy but all everybody cared about was Justin Bieber.”
Did he congratulate her? “Of course,” Spalding recounts. “He was fine, he didn’t seem at all perturbed. Everyone in his camp knew he was going to be fine whether or not he won that Grammy. It was like it was no big deal for him.”
For spiteful Bieber fans, it was a big deal. They vandalised Spalding’s Wikipedia page and sent her death threats. One wrote: “Justin Bieber deserved it, go die in a hole and who the heck are you anyway?”
If that experience affected Spalding, she doesn’t show it. The singer, now 31, who has since picked up another three Grammys and toured with Prince, is speaking to Review before her first Australian performances next month at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival and Sydney Opera House.
Speaking from San Francisco, where she is resident creative director at the SF Jazz Centre, Spalding admits that first Grammy win was a boon to her career. “People pay attention when you win a Grammy like that,’’ she says. The singer went on to scoop up the 2013 Grammy awards for the best jazz vocal album for Radio Music Society and best instrumental arrangement accompanying vocalist award for the track City of Roses.
She took out that award again the following year for the track Swing Low. The list of bigname musicians she has played with led to her appearing in two films, Spike Lee’s Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall and Miles Ahead, directed by and starring Don Cheadle.
Spalding, who plays acoustic and fretless electric bass, swapped from playing the violin to the bass at high school. “I knew (the bass) existed but I had never touched one and then one day in the music room I picked it up and it was just like…’’ She hesitates. “It sounds ridiculous because it probably doesn’t happen, but if love at first sight happens the way it should happen then that is the love of your life for the rest of your life. That is what happened. I just couldn’t believe the feel in my body. It felt so good, just the vibration of it, the tone of it, the way the strings moved, everything about it. I just loved it and I still feel that way.”
When pursuing new areas of her practice, the musician is often reminded of that initial experience. “I am in love with the sound and I love what it does in the band. It was my gateway to improvised music.’’ It gave her a taste for playing jazz and playing walking bass lines, she says. Playing the bass influences her approach to singing, she observes. “When I am soloing singing, I should really do melodic shifts because, with my voice, it is easy to do that. But I do tend to build up from the roots and really outline the harmony and outline the sound like what I do as a bass player.’’
Raised in Portland, Oregon, Spalding was a musical prodigy. She taught herself the violin and, from the age of five, performed with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon. By the time she left at 15, she was its concertmaster. At high school she took up the bass and won a scholar- ship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. On graduating, at 20, she was asked to join its staff, the youngest person to teach at Berklee during its long history.
In conversation, Spalding is exuberant. Zany, even. Long-time Berklee teacher and vibraphonist Gary Burton has described her as having an “upbeat personality’’. These qualities as well as artistic vision are reflected on her latest album, Emily’s D+Evolution, a radical departure from her previous recordings with its infusion of