June 2012

Lady Liberty

For genre-bending singer, songwriter, bassist and bandleader ESPERANZA SPALDING, jazz is just the beginning  by REED JOHNSON / photographs by MATT JONES / styling by HAYLEY ATKIN

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Esperanza Spalding waited in the wings of Hollywood’s Music Box theater, as the sound of jazz and pop prophets filled the April evening air. Onstage, a giant replica of a vintage radio hissed out snatches of “Purple Haze,” “Careless Whisper” and what sounded like classical arpeggios.

Her bandmates settled into the groove, and Spalding, a petite woman in a slinky, backless dress, head crowned with tectonic layers of tight black curls, seized her upright bass as if it were a tango partner. She unleashed her supple alto voice and launched into the first of several songs from her daringly unclassifiable new album, Radio Music Society.

The intro was a characteristic gesture acknowledging her artistic progenitors, which range from Bach, William Blake and Wayne Shorter to hip-hop, Brazilian samba and Cuban son. After all, Spalding says, “the main thing is just remembering that one voice isn’t any more valuable than another. It’s the diversity that’s valuable.”

How, then, to assess the value of an artist who, at 27, already possesses a multitude of voices? The daughter of a single mother, she was raised in and identifies with the gang-plagued, polyglot King neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, but also feels a kinship with Henry David Thoreau’s love of nature’s subtle harmonies.

A woman of reputedly Zen-like serenity, her current tour-bus reading includes the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and she works at being an outspoken advocate for social-justice causes. In Spalding, disparate qualities come together in a personality that friends, colleagues and music writers describe with words like joyous, thoughtful, passionate and prodigiously gifted.

“She is way bigger and better than anyone could try to describe,” says legendary Brazilian singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento, who has joined her live and on CD.

Both street schooled and classically trained, Spalding became the new face—and the great multicultural hope—of jazz when she won Best New Artist at the 53rd Grammy Awards in 2011. Her recognition raised the spirits of long-suffering cognoscenti of the genre and sent legions of Justin Bieber fans into a state of apoplexy. (Some went so far as to sabotage Spalding’s Wikipedia entry.)

In February, she flagged the attention of millions with a stunning rendition of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”—backed by the Southern California Children’s Chorus—during the Academy Awards’ “In Memorium” segment.

Today, with four finished albums, Spalding is part of a small but expanding cadre of artists—Brad Mehldau, Robert Glasper, Lalah Hathaway and Jason Moran, to name a few—integrating pop, rock, R&B, urban dance and you-name-it into jazz, in marked contrast to the canonical “pure” approach of the Lincoln Center school led by Wynton Marsalis.

Spalding’s artistry, and perhaps her entire being, is a testament to her belief in democratic pluralism and variation, a celebration of “impurity” in everything from music and spirituality to knowledge and even beauty.

“The marketing slice of what beauty means to the world at large, at least in this culture, is soooo thin,” she says by phone from a tour stop in Cleveland. “I’ve even had people giving me pressure to fix the gap in my teeth. I didn’t lose a tooth— it’s just how I was born. But there’s, like, a fear that somehow that imperfection in my appearance would affect people’s ability to access the art I’m making. I mean, I think Dexter Gordon is beautiful, wouldn’t you say? Cannonball Adderley’s presence on the stage is beautiful. Beauty means so many different things.”

As her profile has risen, Spalding has also emerged as a cultural crusader who’s aware of the platform music gives her to speak her mind. On Radio Music Society, a loving tribute to her hometown of Portland (“City of Roses”) coexists with a haunting lament for our imperiled planet (“Endangered Species”) and a tersely ironic gospel-organ requiem (“Land of the Free”) for an unjustly jailed man that ends with the dissonant clang of a jail-cell door.

Spalding’s current tour includes an August 22 Hollywood Bowl appearance with R&B diva Anita Baker. Some of the proceeds from her recent shows have gone to benefit a cause close to her heart—Free the Slaves, a nonprofit directed at ending the economic serfdom imposed on millions around the world due to a sheer lack of resources.

“She’s a very connected, very grounded but very spiritual person,” says jazz singer Gretchen Parlato, another ascending crossover talent who has performed on several of Spalding’s recordings, including a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It” on Radio Music Society.

Spalding is the type of leader who introduces her bandmates at the beginning of concerts, as opposed to the end. As she likes to remind audiences, practicing “right speech, treating people right even when they’re off-camera,” is essential.

“Before shows, she always has the band come together and stand in a circle,” Parlato says, “and she gives a kind of, you could call it a prayer...a pep talk. Everyone is connected and has their eyes closed. She gets focused in the moment and allows everybody to feel grateful for the experience. She is layered in all these different ways.”

By her own account, the bedrock of Spalding’s life consisted of two strata: her mother and the Portland neighborhood where she grew up. In certain ways, her early biography resembles that of the man who requested her to perform at the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize Concert in his honor: President Barack Obama. A strong mother, absentee father, cultural mash of an upbringing and fierce determination mixed with cool self-possession.

Spalding’s youthful environs were a mélange of African-American, Latino, Native American and other ethnic contours. Her mother spoke English, Spanish and French around Spalding and her brother, and a number of friends, coworkers and neighbors were Spanish speakers. Those varied cadences continue to seep into Spalding’s music, which she sings in several languages.

“I have a lot of friends who speak Spanish and English and Portuguese. Often at those get-togethers, it’s a mix of any and everything—whatever phrase seems to best fit the emotion or joke or whatever.”

According to an oft-cited factoid on her website, Spalding’s affinity for tricky string instruments began at age four or five, when she saw Yo-Yo Ma perform on an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Before long, she had taught herself to play the violin well enough to join the Chamber Music Society of Oregon.

In the years that followed, she added guitar, oboe and clarinet, before embracing the bass in high school, an experience she has said was “like waking up one day and realizing you’re in love with a coworker.” At 16, she was the youngest bass player enrolled in Portland State University’s music program. In 2005, the still blossoming 20-year-old was appointed a faculty member at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. She began embarking on collaborations with veteran cats like bassist Stanley Clarke, guitarist Pat Metheny, saxophonist Joe Lovano and others, impressing her elders with her skill and maturity.

“As a bass player myself, I almost fainted when I heard the bass so well executed,” Nascimento says via email. “And her voice touched my heart deeply.”

Lovano, who holds a chair in jazz performance at Berklee and first played with Spalding in one of his ensembles there, says she “had a real sense of who she was as a musician” right from the start. “She’s fearless, and she has a wide range of peoples and cultures. She embraces all these things that give her personality a real rich foundation, and that personality comes through in her playing.”

Lovano, who contributes a delicately introspective sax solo to Spalding’s “I Can’t Help It” cover on the new CD, also admires her ability to play, sing and lead her band all at the same time. “It reminds me of Sting or Paul McCartney.”

Spalding’s solo breakthrough arrived with the 2008 release of her major-label debut, Esperanza, to a chorus of critical raves that helped it hold fast for dozens of weeks on Billboard’s jazz-album chart. “Esperanza has got a lot,” a New York Times reviewer wrote. “Accomplished jazz improvisation, funk, scat singing, Brazilian vernacular rhythm and vocals in English, Portuguese and Spanish. At its center is a female bassist, singer and bandleader, one whose talent is beyond question.”

Judith Sugarman, a faculty member at Mannes College the New School for Music in New York City—and Spalding’s bass teacher—says, “Her ability to make connections and her creative problem-solving abilities are at the core of her approach. She’s got great ears, and her pitch is fabulous. But what really impressed me was the fact that she’s just plain ol’ folk.”

Spalding continues to draw from the wellsprings of both classical music and, well, everything else. She originally conceived her third record, Chamber Music Society (released in August 2010), as a double album with Radio Music Society. She even thought of taking the records out on tour simultaneously, played with two different ensembles.

“I think the simplest sort of analogy is, if they are two siblings, Chamber Music Society would be the introvert and Radio Music Society would be the extrovert, although they grew up under the same roof and have the same parents,” she says.

In keeping with her ability to defy labels, Spalding has continued to push back against a set definition of jazz. Past newspaper stories suggested she and Marsalis had a complicated professional relationship, stemming from their varied approaches to jazz, but Spalding calls him “a dear man...incredibly sweet and supportive.” A moment later, she observes that a little creative friction in art, or among artists, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Even the dialogue of resentment can sometimes create beauty,” she says. “Something creatively constructive can happen even if someone feels like they need to be the countervoice to what Wynton is doing.

“The beautiful thing is there’s room for everyone. Even if you feel totally opposed to what Jazz at Lincoln Center is or what it does, then you can go down the street and hear something else in a totally different venue. You can go to Smalls or the Stone or whatever. As many personality types as there are, there can be that many wonderful perspectives on music—as long as nobody’s saying that’s right and that’s wrong.”

PRODUCER: Hannah Harte
MAKEUP: Francesca Tolot / Cloutier Remix
HAIR: Jarrett Iovinella / The Magnet Agency
MANICURE: Lisa Jachno / Aim Artists