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Esperanza Spalding Takes on Dual Role in Jazz

October 28, 2010 at 5:31 PM EST
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Jeffrey Brown profiles Esperanza Spalding, the young jazz phenomenon who pulls double duty on stage by playing the bass and singing. The classically trained bassist has appeared at the White House and is currently on a world-wide tour.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Esperanza Spalding latest sound, featuring a string trio with her jazz bass and band, shows how she mixes classical music into the jazz idiom for which she’s best known. She’s recorded a collection of these songs on a new album titled “Chamber Music Society.”

When we talked recently before a performance at the historic Lincoln Theatre in Washington, D.C. she said it explores what she calls a middle ground between styles.

ESPERANZA SPALDING, musician: Yes. I mean, it’s — the way that a jazz musician is thinking, listening, interacting is very similar to what’s happening in pre-written music, obviously, where everything is pre-prepared. There is just more improvisation.

So, in this project, we are exploring that space as instrumentalists, and obviously as a composer and the arrangement, exploring that space between the written chamber music and the improvisatory chamber music.

JEFFREY BROWN: At just 25, Esperanza Spalding is something of a jazz phenomenon. A bass player, singer and composer, she released her first album just two years ago, to much critical and public acclaim, since then has appeared at White House twice.

She also performed at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo last year for President Obama and on numerous TV programs. But classical music came first, and, yes, PBS viewers, “Mister Rogers” played a big part.

ESPERANZA SPALDING: I saw a program with Yo-Yo Ma when I was about 5. And I said, mom, I want to do that. You know, whatever that is, I want to do that.

The first 10 years of my musical life were as a violinist because of seeing Yo-Yo Ma perform. Of course, I realized later that that was the wrong instrument.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

Spalding taught herself the violin at first. She grew up in a neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, with poverty and gang violence that she’s described as — quote — “pretty scary.”

She joined a community orchestra for adults and children, the Chamber Music Society of Oregon. Soon after, though, she met her true musical love: the bass.

ESPERANZA SPALDING: I picked it up just out of curiosity, and played a note, an open note, an open string. And the sound really captivated me. It has a very distinct way of resonating within the body and resonating in a room. And I had never experienced that before.

My music teacher came in and gave me a brief overview of how a bass functions in improvised music, so in the blues. And then, in about five minutes, we were jamming on this really simple blues progression.

When I got a taste of the spontaneity of the improvisational music, right then, I knew that that was really the kind of music I was supposed to be playing.

JEFFREY BROWN: That was the opening to jazz?

ESPERANZA SPALDING: That was it, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Spalding graduated from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and, at 20, became the school’s youngest-ever instructor.

And she became known for weaving together different styles of music into her jazz compositions, using Latin rhythms, hip-hop, soul, whatever worked.

ESPERANZA SPALDING: It’s sound. You hear a feel, you hear a groove, you hear a melody shape, and you really absorb it somehow.

And when it comes time to write a balanced piece of music, all you are listening for is what sounds right in that moment. It doesn’t matter what genre or idiom or anything that it comes from. It’s just, what’s going to make this piece work?

JEFFREY BROWN: Spalding’s bass playing got the attention of jazz giants. She performed recently with an all-star group at a Los Angeles gala celebrating Herbie Hancock’s 70th birthday.

(MUSIC)

JEFFREY BROWN: But these days, it’s her singing that’s transfixing audiences. And that, she says, is new and exciting.

ESPERANZA SPALDING: It’s a whole new instrument. And — and it’s kind of like acting too. And I’m realizing, really being able to fully emote and live the experience of the story that you are telling, it’s exciting to see how that alone sometimes can bring someone into music that might sound too confusing or kind of too brainy, too cerebral.

Just, sometimes, having that thread of symbolism with the words to draw someone into the music, then they can really dig everything that’s happening around that — that melody.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right now, Spalding is gaining a faithful following. But a question for everyone in jazz these days, especially one so young, is how to build audiences for the future. Perhaps remembering her own early exposure to Yo-Yo Ma, Spalding sometimes plays for school audiences.

ESPERANZA SPALDING: I have personally experienced the process of kind of modifying how I explain or how I present improvised music to, you know, second-graders. And when they get into the right headspace, they can engage with us as we play freely. We’re not watering it down.

JEFFREY BROWN: You can see it? You see it happening?

ESPERANZA SPALDING: Yes, I have seen that happen. And I think that’s beautiful. And seeing how much they could really enjoy this spontaneous conversation that we were having, I thought, wow, that means anybody can enjoy it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Esperanza Spalding is now at work on her next recording, which will feature sounds she grew up with and still loves on pop radio. In the meantime, she’s on the road with her “Chamber Music Society” mix of jazz, with strings attached.

JIM LEHRER: That story was, of course, reported by Jeffrey Brown.