Saturday, February 26, 2011

March Artist Of the Month: Esperanza Spalding

Esperanza Spalding (born 1984)[2] is an American multi-instrumentalist best known as a jazz bassist and singer, who draws upon many genres in her own compositions. In 2011, she won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist at the 53rd Grammy Awards,[3] making her the first jazz artist to win the award.[4][5]

Early life and educationSpalding grew up in the King neighborhood of Portland, Oregon,[6] a neighborhood she describes as "ghetto" and "pretty scary".[7] Her mother raised her and her brother as a single parent.[8]

Spalding has a diverse ethnic background.[7][9] She notes, "My mom is Welsh, Hispanic, and Native American, and my father is black."[10][11] She also has an interest in the music of other cultures, including that of Brazil,[12] commenting, "With Portuguese songs the phrasing of the melody is intrinsically linked with the language, and it’s beautiful".[13]

Her mother shares Spalding's interest in music, having nearly become a touring singer herself.[8][14] But while Spalding cites her mother as a powerful influence who encouraged her musical expansion, she attributes her inspiration for pursuing a life in music to watching classical cellist Yo Yo Ma perform on an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood when she was four.[8]

By the time Spalding was five, she had taught herself to play the violin and was playing with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon.[8] Spalding stayed with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon until she was fifteen and left as concertmaster.[8] Due to a lengthy illness when she was child, Spalding spent much of her elementary school years being homeschooled,[8] but also attended King Elementary School in Northeast Portland.[6] During this time she also found the opportunity to pick up instruction in music by listening to her mother's college teacher instruct her mother in guitar.[13] According to Spalding, when she was about 8 her mother briefly studied jazz guitar in college; Spalding says, "Going with her to her class, I would sit under the piano. Then I would come home and I would be playing her stuff that her teacher had been playing."[13] Spalding also played oboe and clarinet before discovering the bass in high school.[2][8] She is able to sing in English, Spanish and Portuguese.[15]

Discovering the bass
Spalding performing at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy on July 12, 2007Spalding had intended to play cello,[13] but discovered the bass during a one-year stint at age 14 at the prestigious performing arts high school, The Northwest Academy, to which she had won a scholarship.[16][17] The school was not a good fit, but the bass was.[16] Spalding found high school "easy – and boring" and dropped out. When asked in 2008 why she plays the bass instead of some other instrument, Spalding said that it wasn't a choice, but the bass "had its own arc" and resonated with her.[18] Spalding says that for her discovering the bass was like "waking up one day and realizing you’re in love with a co-worker."[13] By the time she randomly picked up the bass in music class and began experimenting with it, she had grown bored with her other instruments.[16][19] Her band teacher showed her a blues line for the bass which she later used to secure her first gig.[16] After that, she went in to play the bass daily and gradually fell in love.[13]

When she was 15 or 16 years old, Spalding started writing lyrics for music for the local indie rock/pop group Noise for Pretend, touching on any topic that came to mind.[18] Although she had taken a few private voice lessons which taught her how to protect her voice, her primary singing experience had come from "singing in the shower", she said,[18] before she started performing vocals for Noise for Pretend.[13] Her desire to perform live evolved naturally out of the compositional process, when she would sing and play simultaneously to see how melody and voice fit together, but she acknowledges that performing both roles can be challenging.[13][20] In a 2008 interview, she said, "[W]hat can be difficult is being a singer, in the sense that you are engaged with the audience, and really responsible for emoting, and getting into the lyrics, melody, etc and being an effective bassist/band leader."[20]

CollegeSpalding left high school at 16 and, after completing her GED, enrolled on a music scholarship in the music program at Portland State University, where she remembers being "the youngest bass player in the program."[8] Although she lacked the training of her fellow students, she feels that her teachers nevertheless recognized her talent.[8] She decided to instead apply to Berklee College of Music on the encouragement of her bass teacher, and did well enough in her audition to receive a full scholarship.[14][16] In spite of the scholarship, Spalding found it a challenge meeting living expenses, so her friends arranged a benefit concert that paid her airfare and a little extra.[13][16]

Spalding's savings did not last long. Broke and exhausted,[21] she considered leaving music and entering political science,[14] a move jazz guitarist and composer Pat Metheny discouraged, telling Spalding she had "the 'X Factor'" and could make it if she applied herself.[14] During her time at Berklee, her primary bass instructor was John Lockwood.[citation needed]

TouringSpalding had begun performing live in clubs in Portland, Oregon as a teenager,[12] securing her first gig at 15 in a blues club when she could only play one line on bass.[16] One of the seasoned musicians with which she played that first night invited her to join the band's rehearsals "so she could actually learn something", and her rehearsals soon grew into regular performances spanning almost a year.[16] According to Spalding, it was a chance for her to stretch as a musician, reaching and growing beyond her experience.[13] Her early contact with these "phenomenal resources", as she calls the musicians who played with her,[13] fostered her sense of rhythm and helped nurture her interest in her instrument.[16]

Patti Austin hired Spalding to tour with her internationally after Spalding's first semester at Berklee,[16] where Spalding supported the singer on the Ella Fitzgerald tribute tour "For Ella".[13] In 2008, Spalding recalled the tour as educational, helping her learn to accompany a vocalist and also how to sustain energy and interest playing the same material nightly.[13] She continued to perform with Austin periodically for three years.[13] During the same period, while at Berklee, Spalding studied under saxophonist Joe Lovano before eventually touring with him.[13] They began as a trio, expanding into a quartet before joining quintet US5 and traveling across the United States from New York to California.[13]

She does not consider herself a musical prodigy.[18] "I am surrounded by prodigies everywhere I go, but because they are a little older than me, or not a female, or not on a major label, they are not acknowledged as such," says Spalding.[18]

TeachingSpalding was the 2005 recipient of the Boston Jazz Society scholarship for outstanding musicianship.[8] Almost immediately after graduation from college later the same year, Spalding was hired by Berklee College of Music, becoming one of the youngest professors in the institution's history,[22] at age 20.[23] As a teacher, Spalding tries to help her students focus their practice through a practice journal which can help them recognize their strengths and what they need to pursue.[13] As of 2008, she was also in the process of developing several courses for students at Berklee, including one that focuses "on transcribing as a tool for learning harmony and theory".[13] Since that time, Spalding currently lives in Austin, Texas.[24]

Solo records and collaborationsSpalding has recorded three albums Junjo (2006), Esperanza (2008) and Chamber Music Society (2010).[18][25] The first was created to display the dynamic that she felt among her trio.[18] Though Junjo was released solely under her name, Spalding considers it "a collaborative effort."[13] With Esperanza, Spalding's material was meant to be more reflective of herself as an artist, with musicians selected to best present that material.[18] Ed Morales wrote in PopMatters on June 23, 2008 that Esperanza is "a sprawling collage of jazz fusion, Brazilian and even a touch of hip-hop."[11] Siddhartha Mitter wrote in the Boston Globe on May 23, 2008 that "the big change" in Esperanza "is the singing..... This makes [Esperanza] a much more accessible album, and in some ways more conventional."[26] In Chamber Music Society, inspiration from her earlier days as a concertmaster is apparent in her fusion of three-piece string ensemble with piano, keyboards, drums and percussion. As Patrick Jarenwattananon wrote for NPR Music, "the finished product certainly exudes a level of sophisticated intimacy, as if best experienced with a small gathering in a quiet, wood-paneled room."[27]

In addition to these albums, Spalding has collaborated with Fourplay, Stanley Clarke, Christian Scott, Donald Harrison, Joe Lovano, Nino Josele, Nando Michelin, and Theresa Perez.[20]

Her next project, scheduled for release in late 2011, is an album currently titled Radio Music Society, which she hopes will showcase jazz musicians in an accessible manner suitable for mainstream radio.[28]

Critical receptionGary Burton, Executive Vice President at Berklee, said in 2004 that Spalding had "a great time feel, she can confidently read the most complicated compositions, and she communicates her upbeat personality in everything she plays."[16] Ben Ratliff wrote in The New York Times on July 9, 2006 that Spaldings voice is "light and high, up in Blossom Dearie's pitch range, and she can sing quietly, almost in a daydream" and that Spalding "invents her own feminine space, a different sound from top to bottom."[29]

Ratliff wrote in The New York Times again, two years later, on May 26, 2008 that one of Spalding's central gifts is "a light, fizzy, optimistic drive that's in her melodic bass playing and her elastic, small-voiced singing" but that "the music is missing a crucial measure of modesty."[30] He added, "It's an attempt at bringing this crisscrossing [of Stevie Wonder and Wayne Shorter] to a new level of definition and power, but its vamps and grooves are a little obvious, and it pushes her first as a singer-songwriter, which isn't her primary strength."[30] Pat Metheny said in 2008 it was immediately obvious "that she had a lot to say and was also unlike any musician I had ever run across before. Her unique quality is something that goes beyond her pretty amazing musical skills; She has that rare 'x' factor of being able to transmit a certain personal kind of vision and energy that is all her own."[21]

Andrés Quinteros wrote in the Argentinian periodical, 26Noticias on October 28, 2008 that Spalding is one of the greatest new talents on the jazz scene today.[31]

In February 2011, at the 53rd Grammy Awards, Spalding won the "Best New Artist" award.[28]

Influences and attitude toward music and jazzSpalding cites jazz bassists Ron Carter and Dave Holland as important influences on her music; Carter for the "orchestration" of his playing and Holland for the way his compositional method complements his personal style.[13] She has described the saxophone player Wayne Shorter,[14] and singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento, as heroes.[32] She has also noted her preference for the music of Brazil.[14]

Spalding says she loves fusion music and was influenced by a "wonderful arc that started 40 years ago where people kept incorporating modern sounds into their music."[11] She has expressed concerns that jazz has wandered from its roots, suggesting that jazz has lost its street value and its relevance to "the Black experience to the Black Diaspora and beyond" now that has been co-opted by the "seasoned 'art' community."[7] She notes that in its early days, jazz was "popular dance music" and "the music of young people who considered themselves awfully hip", and believes "hip-hop, or neo-soul ... is our 'jazz' now as far as the role these genres play in the music genre lineage...."[7]

Spalding performing on December 10, 2009 at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert of 2009Spalding, who has expressed a desire to be judged for her musicianship rather than her sex appeal, believes that female musicians must take responsibility to avoid oversexualizing themselves.[11][14] and that in order to write original music, one must read and stay informed about the world.[14] She has said she models her career on those of Madonna and Ornette Coleman.[22]

PerformancesSome of Spalding's high-profile performances include:

2009 Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony and Concert
On December 10, at the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies, Spalding performed at Oslo City Hall in honor of the 2009 Laureate President Barack Obama and again at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert the following day. She was personally selected by Obama, as per the tradition of one laureate-invited-artist to perform.[33]

2009 Park City Jazz Festival
Spalding also was the featured final act for the opening night of the 2009 Park City Jazz Festival in Park City, Utah, one of the top jazz festivals in the country. She closed the show with a number along with bass artists Brian Bromberg and Sean O'Bryan Smith, who also performed earlier that day.[34]

2010 BET Awards
As a tribute to Prince, Spalding was invited to sing along with Patti LaBelle, Alicia Keys, and Janelle Monae. Spalding performed the 1987 hit single "If I Was Your Girlfriend."[33][35]

2010 Austin City Limits (PBS-TV)
On February 7, 2010, Spalding became the most searched person and second most searched item on Google as a result of her appearance the previous evening on the PBS television program Austin City Limits.[36][37]

DiscographySolo albumsOriginal Release Date Album Label
April 18, 2006 Junjo[n 1] Ayva Music
May 20, 2008 Esperanza[n 2] Heads Up International
August 17, 2010 Chamber Music Society Heads Up International

Notes1.^ Accompanied by Cuban pianist and drummer.
2.^ Accompanied by flamenco guitar guitarist Niño Josele, percussionist Jamey Haddad, drummer Horacio "El Negro" Hernández, saxophonist Donald Harrison and others.
With Noise for PretendOriginal Release Date Album Label
October 30, 2001 Blanket Music/Noise For Pretend Hush Records
July 2, 2002 Happy You Near Hush Records

With Stanley ClarkeOriginal Release Date Album Label
October 16, 2007 The Toys of Men Heads Up International

With Nando MichelinOriginal Release Date Album Label
November 21, 2006 Duende Fresh Sound New Talent
January 4, 2010 Reencontro Blue Music Group

With M. WardOriginal Release Date Album Label
March 18, 2003 Transfiguration of Vincent Merge Records

With Mike SternOriginal Release Date Album Label
August 11, 2009 Big Neighborhood Heads Up International

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