Music » Music Feature

Bass is her Place

Esperanza Spalding represents jazz’s latest hope



For all the wild-eyed accolades that have been showered upon Esperanza Spalding (David Letterman recently called her the coolest guest he’s ever had on his show), the most common rave may also be the one that the 23-year-old vocalist/bassist finds the most baffling: namely, that she sings and plays at the same time.

“It’s so silly, isn’t it?” says Spalding via phone of the attention paid to her dual-edged attack. “I mean, why not?”

But jazz critics have a proclivity for labeling novel anything that hasn’t seeped by the bucketful through jazz’s hallowed walls. It’s the kind of lost-in-the-stars gushing that turns rockers’ heads from banging to shaking. And with her rocket-charged life, it’s no wonder Spalding joins them in looking beyond the feat.

Raised and home-schooled by her single mother in Portland, Oregon, Spalding began teaching herself violin at age five, switched to bass at 15, entered Portland State University a year later and within months had earned a full scholarship to Berklee College of Music. At age 20, she became the second youngest instructor (after Pat Metheny) in Berklee’s history.

So how did she end up playing bass and singing at the same time?

“We’re these amazing creatures that can almost do anything that we set our minds to,” she says. It’s something Spalding tries to impress upon her students. “It’s a privilege for [musicians] to have the jobs that we have. And oftentimes with young people, there’s kind of this feeling of entitlement. They don’t get that it’s a very long process with a lot of self-sacrifice and diligence.”

Spalding has the “I walked two miles in the snow to get to school” credentials — literally. And while she didn’t do it barefoot (I don’t think), she was lugging a double bass.

Yet even Spalding tends to plot her life in magical-realistic terms. Like when she tells of picking up the bass for the first time: “In that same moment — that same day — a teacher came in and started explaining the blues to me.” Fast-forward seven years or so and she’s producing her self-titled major-label record debut for Cleveland’s Heads Up International.

“It kind of worked out that way,” she says about finding herself both in front of the mike and behind the controls. Time constraints limited any other producer from stepping in, she explains, and besides, nobody knew the music like she did.

The result is one of this year’s most exciting jazz releases. Blending standards with originals, English with Portuguese and Spanish, bop and pop with bossa nova and samba, Spalding has crafted a stew as digestible as any Norah Jones confection, but with enough kick and complexity to keep you from drifting into a smooth-jazz coma.

One of the highlights of Esperanza is her Spanish version of “Body and Soul.” Never wanting to sing in foreign languages just “to prove it,” Spalding sees the song as an opportunity to show “how you can sing in Spanish, with the inflection that Spanish has, but place it so that it’s still swinging in context to a group that’s playing swing music.”

The lyrics to her own tunes are no less concerned with how they fit and interact with the rest of the music. Her words loop through the songs “Precious” and “I Know You Know” with the same velocity and punch as her bass lines.

Spalding displays what seems to be a preternatural ability not to become mired in accomplishment. But with an introductory record, she notes, “people will get a good feel for who you are and…can watch you refine yourself later.”

Esperanza Spalding, 7 p.m. Wednesday, August 6, Nighttown, 12387 Cedar Rd., 216.795.0550Tickets: $20.

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