Grammy-winning young jazz bassist and vocalist.
Esperanza Spalding Meets SJW
Grammy-winning jazz bassist, vocalist and composer comes to Bing Concert Hall for a magical, only-at-SJW performance
With dazzling creativity and an astonishing mastery of jazz, bassist, vocalist, and composer Esperanza Spalding comes to Bing Concert Hall for a unique performance bringing her together with several of SJW’s most adventurous young artists. Julian Lage, Taylor Eigsti, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Esperanza are kindred spirits, and though this will be the first time they’ve come together as a band, the connection between them all is tangible. Add to the mix the incredible percussionist Tupac Mantilla and bassist Linda Oh, and you can expect to have a night of music you’ll never forget.
Esperanza Spalding, bass and vocals
Julian Lage, guitar
Ambrose Akinmusire, trumpet
Taylor Eigsti, piano
Linda Oh, bass
Tupac Mantilla, percussion
Esperanza Spalding has defied expectations at every turn. Long before she blasted into pop cultural consciousness with her unexpected Best New Artist Grammy Award in 2011, upsetting the anticipated anointment of Justin Bieber, the bassist/vocalist has followed her muse hither and yon. Wearing any number of guises and costumes, she’s at times a catalytic accompanist for some of jazz’s greatest improvisers, a performance art chanteuse, a chamber jazz ensemble bandleader, or the groove-centric engine of a neo-soul menagerie.
Born and raised in Portland, Spalding was a precociously curious musician who started playing violin and oboe in the Chamber Music Society of Oregon at six, eventually becoming the ensemble’s concertmaster. She discovered the bass as a teenager, which led her away from European classical music and toward blues, funk, hip-hop, jazz, and Latin music. Thriving under the mentorship of revered educator and trumpeter Thara Memory, she started working around Portland’s club scene and honed the ability to sing and play simultaneously to perform her own pop songs. While her music has evolved tremendously since then, accompanying herself on bass remains at the center of her sound.
“Once I realized it had a lot of potential I had to figure out, what do I really need to learn to make it as powerful and free as it can be?” Spalding says. “That means everything from playing scales along with ‘Dolphin Dance’ and singing a third away from the line to transcribing Bach inventions. I’m still looking for what I really need to do.”
At 20, she became the youngest musician ever hired as an instructor at Berklee, a faculty gig she landed immediately after completing her undergraduate degree at the school in 2005. She created a buzz almost immediately upon enrolling. With her infectious bandstand charisma, supple sense of time and commanding sound, Spalding quickly became a player sought out by her peers. Before long veteran artists such as Michel Camilo, Pat Metheny, Dianne Reeves, Donald Harrison, and Joe Lovano came calling.
These days she’s jazz’s most visible ambassador after Wynton Marsalis, a familiar presence in the international spotlight performing at the White House and the Academy Awards. At first she used her clout to organize two polished and ambitious projects that she documented on 2010’s string- oriented Chamber Music Society and 2012’s soul-steeped, double Grammy Award-winning Radio Music Society (both on Heads Up). But when she wanted to try something completely different, she felt she needed a way to signal her fans not to expect an Esperanza Spalding show. Thus her recent reinvention on the Concord album Emily’s D+Evolution. Using the middle name she answered to as a child (“My family never calls me Esperanza,” she says), Spalding created a volatile body of songs and a theatrical stage act that’s part identify-shifting performance art, part poetic adventure, and entirely entertaining.
Emily’s D+Evolution isn’t a stripped down version of her string-oriented Chamber Music Society or her R&B-inflected Radio Music Society ensembles. It’s a completely new direction that unleashes her inner rock star, by way of Joni Mitchell. The point is to dive in, “to move on and grow even if you haven’t fully synthesized all the information for the next step,” she says. “Growing up I got a lot of flunking grades and I just kept developing as a human being. What happens is that you move forward even if you don’t technically know the tools you need.”
In much the same way, she relishes the opportunity to mix it up with master improvisers in unscripted settings. As a Resident Artist Director at SFJAZZ last year she programmed a series of impromptu encounters with artists like the great Brazilian guitarist/composer Guinga, Beninese guitarist/vocalist Lionel Loueke, and powerhouse drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. In stepping in for an ailing Bobby McFerrin, she’s eager for a series of new bandstand encounters, both first-time collaborations (Linda Oh and Tupac Mantilla) and reunions, like with pianist Taylor Eigsti.
He put in some serious time with Spalding about 10 years ago on a tour with fellow Concord artists Erin Boheme and trumpeter Christian Scott where “she was just playing bass and killing it,” he says. “This was right before she took off, and she handled all of my harder tunes with such confidence. The last time I played with her it was with Nicholas Payton and Karriem Riggins, one of the greatest shows I can remember, playing four tunes over 75 minutes and really stretching out. She’s one of those players who has used the opportunities for increased exposure to get better and better.”
She also shares some history with Akinmusire, who first met her when she brought him in to play on two tracks on Esperanza, her 2008 Heads Up album, “her second record as a leader,” the trumpeter says. “She flew me out to Boston and we drove out to middle of nowhere to record. She’s someone I hang out with when we see other on the road.”
In their own ways, Akinmusire and Spalding have followed similar trajectories, looking for musical expression that increasingly incorporates fully composed sections. And while unplanned stage encounters don’t lend themselves to that kind of music making, “playing with musicians of this caliber you can create something that sounds through composed,” Akinmusire says. “I know there’s something beyond killing jazz solos. I’m more into things that have the feeling of craft or having been crafted,” which sounds a lot like where Spalding has been heading.
More about Esperanza Spalding
Four time Grammy Award winner Esperanza Spalding has, in the past decade of her illustrious career (which also involves having performed at the Oscars, the Grammys, the Nobel Prize ceremony, and several times at the White House), continually and brilliantly married genres, pushed boundaries, and created groundbreaking work. By anyone’s measure, Spalding’s accomplishments at 31 years of age have already eclipsed those of artists half a century older, yet it’s blatantly obvious that her artistic journey is a lifelong one that we’ve just begun to collectively comprehend.
Spalding is, as a composer, bassist and vocalist, expansive, iterative, shape-shifting, open, and progressively innovative. A voracious and magnetic performer, she is attentively studious towards what the process of playing live–whether sharing a stage with her own revolving ensembles, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Janelle Monae or Prince–presents to the structure of a song. That channeled energy runs through her recorded catalog of seven collaborative and five solo albums. The most recent, Emily’s D+Evolution, is out March 4th (Concord) and is a fresh artistic vision for Spalding–a daring tapestry of music, vibrant imagery, performance art and stage design. Co-produced by Spalding and Tony Visconti (David Bowie), the album is an electrifying take on the power trio, and is adorned with rich vocal arrangements and touches of synthesizer.
As the NY Times mentions in their 2012 post-Best New Artist Grammy profile, Spalding “has made her mark not just as a virtuoso jazz bassist or an effortlessly nimble singer but as an exotic hybrid of the two. The very nature of her talent is exceptional.” That same year’s release, Radio Music Society, debuted on the Billboard Top 10; The Guardian praised its “torchy swaggers.” 2010’s Chamber Music Society was infused with what NPR dubbed “an ineffable brightness”. Preceding that was her eponymous Esperanza album, performed in English, Spanish and Portuguese. Spalding’s 2006 debut, “JUNJO,” was called “a stunningly sophisticated yet playful set of acoustic trio jazz: rubbery bass, piano, drums and sexy Latin melodies harking back to the ‘70s Brazilian jazz of Flora Purim” by Rolling Stone–but 2006 is far from where Spalding’s life in music began.
Following an inspirational episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that featured Yo Yo Ma, Spalding pursued study of her first instrument, the violin, at a time when most children her age were just learning to read. At age five, she was playing with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon in her hometown of Portland. By the time she exited the group at 15 as a concertmaster, she was composing and playing acoustic bass professionally with local bands. The latter became the instrument most central to her work: she joined her first band as a bassist and vocalist, Noise for Pretend, the same year she left the Chamber Music Society of Oregon. Following the group’s run, Spalding became one of the youngest bassists at Portland State University. When that wasn’t ultimately a fit, she moved to and graduated from Berklee College of Music. Upon graduation at age 20, Spalding became the prestigious school’s youngest-ever instructor.
Through her groundbreaking albums, she is still teaching those who listen.
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