Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

March/April 2011: Rufus Reid

Esperanza Spalding:
Mysterious Traveller

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Esperanza Spalding appears to be somebody from another planet. She’s just this absolute musical genius. She’s one of the most giftedly lyrical musicians alive today—when you hear her inventing melodies, it’s nothing short of miraculous.

Esperanza Spalding has been one to watch since she appeared on the jazz scene in 2005. An unconventional kid, she got hooked on music watching Yo Yo Ma on Mr Roger’s Neighborhood, and taught herself enough violin to join the community orchestra. In her teens, she discovered the bass, stepped into jazz, and moved from Portland to Boston to power through the jazz program at Berklee College. The College scooped her up when she graduated at 20, and made her the youngest instructor ever on their faculty.

Her debut, Esperanza, was released in 2005 and rocketed her into public visibility. Her 2006 follow-up, Junjo, along with her busy performing schedule and accolades from people like Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock, confirmed her as a young artist with incredible talent and style. The fact that she played at the White House, got a spot on the David Letterman show, and was featured in O Magazine made her something of a star too—in the jazz world, at least.

Here’s a great story about Spalding. Last year she was getting ready to perform at a Prince tribute, and she realized she was scheming about how to tap into that zone of major popularity herself. When she started putting the show together, she was dismayed by how the industry’s emphasis on production and packaging was sucking out the originality and uniqueness of these artists she was envying. “I decided that I was just happy to be a visitor from the liberated realm of jazz,” she says, “and I decided then, whatever happens, I always want to be surveyor of the territory. I want to be the one deciding what my art means, how it’s presented, even if that means not becoming a pop superstar.”

True to form, she continues to make the music she wants to make, and in the way she wants to make it. Her third recording, Chamber Music Society, released last year, blends her classical roots with her passion for jazz. Because it’s such an intimate project, she thought it would have a small audience. A surprise Grammy nomination made a lie of that!

Actually winning the Grammy for Best New Artist this February stunned a lot of the prize-watchers—with Justin Bieber in the field, Spalding was definitely a long shot. But in the aftershock, the chatter in the blogosphere has been positive, with a few commentators observing pointedly that the award is for Best Artist, not biggest pop sensation.

And an artist she is. Not only can she sing like an angel, play a mean bass, and compose like she’s been at it for decades, but she does all those things with enthusiasm and uncompromising commitment.


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