June 24, 2008

Esperanza Spalding’s Debut Picks Up Where Jazz Fusion of the 1970s Left Off

Esperanza Spalding, a 23-year-old bassist, vocalist and composer from Portland, Ore., is so wildly talented that when her publicity material announces that she "might well be the hope for the future of jazz and instrumental music," it seems like a reasonable proposition. But Spalding, whose new album, "Esperanza," is a sprawling collage of jazz fusion, Brazilian and even a touch of hip-hop, doesn't want to be categorized just yet.

"I guess you have to be in some genre because people have to have words to describe you," Spalding said. "And that's fine, as long as I'm not the one who has to decide which genre I'm in. I'd like it to be popular music, the kind they put in the display in front of the record store with Beyonce and Fiona Apple."

Spalding's debut album might be best described as picking up where the jazz fusion of the 1970s left off. The songs pulsate with complex arrangements, Spalding's uniquely expressive vocals and fat-bottomed bass playing, and challenging melodies and harmonies. "I love fusion music," she said. "There was this wonderful arc that started 40 years ago where people kept incorporating modern sounds into their music. What you hear is a natural outgrowth of what I was exposed to."

Spalding, who played violin for the Chamber Music Society of Oregon from ages 5 to 15, exploded into adolescence by switching to the stand-up bass and playing blues, funk and hip-hop. Two years later, she was studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she eventually became the youngest faculty member in the history of the school at age 20.

"Most people know me as a bass player for various other people," said Spalding, who has worked with jazz standouts Michel Camilo, Pat Metheny and Joe Lovano. "But I'd begun performing my own music with a pop band called Noise for Pretend. They'd say, 'Esperanza, can you just do some lyrics for this?"'

Spalding's contemporary fusion includes strong Latin and Brazilian influences. She was inspired by Milton Nascimento's vocals to record "Ponta de Areia," the Brazilian classic made famous by Wayne Shorter. She also sings a Spanish-language version of the jazz standard "Body and Soul" and returns to Portuguese on Baden Powell's "Samba em Preludio."

"I have Hispanic roots," she explained. "My mother was from Southern California and had some Hispanic background; my nanny was Cuban and I picked up a lot of Spanish from her."

But one of the most impressive quirks to Spalding's act is her improvisatory melodic scatting, influenced by hip-hop MCs. She flaunts it on "She Got to You," which she recently performed on the "Late Show With David Letterman."

"I want to get people excited even if they don't know me or anything about jazz," Spalding said. "I'd love to sit in with people like Herbie Hancock or Pat Metheny, but I would love to collaborate with Questlove of the Roots or Andre 3000," she said, still refusing to be categorized.


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