The bass and grace of Esperanza Spalding
Jazz chanteuse didn't set out to become a star, but her brilliance is impossible to ignore
Esperanza Spalding is one of the bright lights of American music — a bassist, composer and singer with a breadth of interests worthy of the American melting pot. Spalding has eye-popping stage presence. She has serious chops and serious ambitions. As a solo artist, Spalding takes the jazz in her heart and tries to blend it with everything she knows.
Spalding, who plays Saturday at the Paramount Theatre, has barely begun her musical journey. But at 27, she's become quite the celebrity: singing at the Oscars, hanging at the White House, jamming with Prince, winning acclaim at the Grammys.
"I didn't get into music to be a star," she said two years ago. Well, here we are.
Spalding is into so many things — political science, the poetry of William Blake, Brazilian rhythms, fusion, Bach, serving jazz, re-shaping jazz, chamber music, fashion, feminism, black power, the digital age, electric bass, acoustic bass, New York City, Barcelona, Austin — that her identity feels downright kaleidoscopic.
That's OK. That's actually the fun part. Spalding — who's part African American, part Native American, part Hispanic, part Asian — is not so much the jazz sensation as a musical fascination, at least right now. What's more, she's a great American story: The child prodigy, raised by a strong single mom, grows up poor in Portland, Ore., but finds wealth in the beauty of music. The creative road stretches before her.
In many ways, Spalding's solo career took flight in 2009 — when she taped an "Austin City Limits" segment that turned heads across the nation. Terry Lickona, "ACL's" producer, says the last show to receive such a profound "who was that?" public response was Leonard Cohen. In 1988.
"There's an aura about her," says Lickona. "Sure, there's amazing talent ... but there's also beauty. She casts a spell on you."
Spalding cut quite a figure on "ACL": A tiny woman with a huge Afro, toting big bass guitars, fronting a quartet with panache and joy. Her versatility was as notable as the music. She wowed on acoustic and electric bass, sang Milton Nascimento's "Ponta de Areia" in Portuguese, channeled a Flora Purim/Return to Forever vibe on "Sunlight," did a raucous take on Wayne Shorter's "Endangered Species."
Spalding really works live. Lickona can testify. Although he'd listened to her debut album "Esperanza" and been lobbied by her agents, Lickona wasn't necessarily in a rush to book her. Then he attended the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, saw Spalding's name on the program, took in her set in the Jazz Tent. Strictly out of curiosity.
"After the performance, I did something I don't think I've ever done before," says Lickona. "As she was leaving, I ran behind the tent. She was already in an SUV. They were driving away. And I sort of ran out to the side of the car. I knocked on the window. I quickly introduced myself, and after apologizing for being so rude, I told her who I was and how I'd love for her to tape ‘Austin City Limits.' Because, well: ‘You're amazing. ...'"
I caught Spalding the first time in early 2010, after "ACL," a year before she won the Best New Artist Grammy. Joe Lovano, the world-class saxophonist, was playing the Village Vanguard in New York City with a new quintet, Us Five. Spalding was on bass.
You know what? Spalding was even more impressive for the way she stepped back, served Lovano's larger vision, launched into sophisticated rhythm patterns with drummers Francisco Mela and Otis Brown III — who took turns leading the music, offering radically new perspectives with each song.
Spalding was frumped up, her Afro ragged down. She stood discreetly at the rear of the bandstand with her double bass, no star wattage at all. Her touch was sublime. At set's end, I introduced myself to her as a music fan from Austin who was so impressed with the humility and respect she brought to Lovano's cutting-edge jazz.
"I live in Austin," she said, distracted. "I wish I were there right now."
Spalding does rent a place in Austin, visiting periodically to escape the "hyperactivity" of New York. She works here, practices here. She polished one of her most ethereal songs — the "Apple Blossom" duet, with Milton Nascimento, from the "Chamber Music Society" album — in Austin. "Vague Suspicions," about culpability and war, was crafted here.
"I moved (to Austin) as a totally tranquil move," Spalding said in a recent phone interview. "I really fell in love with the people and the city and climate. I'm usually on the road during the summer when it's the hottest ... so I don't really count as an Austinite."
Spalding is more into massage, Mexican food and "walking by the river" than mixing with an Austin scene. She loves that she can practice in the back yard, watch the squirrels, play the piano as late as she pleases 'cause "there's no close neighbors, and it's really quiet, so I can sleep."
"I feel a lot of peace with the people," she says. "It's just so laid-back and that's more my pace as a human being coming from Oregon, you know? ... People (are) really focused on the quality of life, not in where they're getting in life."
Trumpet master Jeff Lofton, a leader in Austin's jazz scene, suggests Spalding is "the perfect musician for Austin." Why? "Because Austin is the most musically eclectic city I know." And Spalding is nothing if not a gumbo of eclectic influences.
In many ways, Spalding is the American female version of jazz bassist Richard Bona — a native of Cameroon, who grew up poor, who can sing and compose and front a band and incorporate pop influences and world music into jazz. He plays double bass and electric bass, sometimes reminding you of Jaco Pastorius.
"The most important thing about Esperanza Spalding is that she's a significant musical figure who's bridging the gap between the old and the new, bringing jazz to the people," says Lofton. "She's within the jazz tradition but obviously not playing a whole lot of straight-ahead jazz. She's doing what jazz music does — which is reinvent itself."
On her past two albums, Spalding first blended jazz with chamber attitudes, then with popular influences. "Radio Music Society" features jazz heavyweights: Lovano, drummers Billy Hart and Jack DeJohnette, African guitarist Lionel Loueke. But it's very much a singer's record, strikingly contemporary, with a social conscience.
Spalding considers jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter a role model. "I love everything he's done and all the facets of his career," she once said. "He's a perfect example of what can happen when you spend your whole life following your muse."
I caught Spalding on stage a second time in January. Again, it was at the Village Vanguard. Again, she played in ensemble — an all-woman jazz trio headlined by drummer Terri Lyne Carrington featuring pianist Geri Allen.
Spalding came casual, no big hair. Before the show, she sat in the shadows and swapped stories with Vanguard owner Lorraine Gordon. Two women, separated by three generations, who can appreciate the hard road women face in the man's world of jazz.
In an all-instrumental set, the trio covered "Misty" and "(The End of) A Beautiful Friendship" — and drew from Carrington's "Mosaic" album. There was nothing competitive going on. The set had a chamber feel to it: intense listening, intense support, intense sensitivity.
Allen, sitting atop a phone book on the piano bench, introduced melody. Carrington swirled and skated over the drum kit. Spalding, on double bass, went deep into the service of ensemble: leading, following, coaxing, blending.
"There's an absolute necessity of this music to listening, deeply listening to what's happening around you. ..."
On the bandstand, Spalding looked straight into Allen's eyes as the two danced within the notes of song. And with no one looking — no media strategy to worry about, no concerns about fame — Spalding smiled broadly and purely, that spiritual smile, when music hits the deepest vein. In the audience: We smiled inside, too.
Spalding's story is only beginning. The creative road stretches before her.