Jazz prodigy Esperanza Spalding, still eager to teach – and learn
Bassist Esperanza Spalding takes her Latin fusion mainstream.
When Esperanza Spalding was still a senior at Boston's Berklee College of Music, the jazz singer and bassist had a startling moment of self-recognition. Traveling on a bus into the city, she glanced up at the college – briefly visible from the highway – and saw a multistory poster of herself on the wall of The Berklee Performance Center. "I had no idea!," she exclaims.Skip to next paragraph
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The billboard, an early indicator of stardom in 2005, is appropriate for a larger-than-life personality who, at age 20, became the youngest faculty member in the college's history. Now, Ms. Spalding is having a different kind of banner year. She's about to appear on David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel as her second album of Latin jazz knocks on the door of mainstream success.
Remarkably, it's not a "crossover record." A couple of the songs are in Portuguese, for starters. As her voice sambas over vibrant South American rhythms and her Elastigirl fingers climb up and down the double-bass's skyscraper neck, you'd swear the girl was from Ipanema, not Portland, Ore. Even people who think they don't like jazz may respond to the melodies on "Esperanza."
"[Musicians] are taking more risks, adding more colors and sounds to the music, ultimately to the benefit of the listener," she says in a phone interview.
"I recognized right away that she had a lot to say and was also unlike any musician I had ever run across before," raves legendary jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, in an e-mail. "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."
Growing up in a single-parent household, Spalding was introduced to a world beyond the gunfire in her inner-city neighborhood by a Yo-Yo Ma appearance on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Instead of trying cello, she taught herself rudimentary violin. By age 5, she'd been welcomed into The Chamber Music Society of Oregon. Ten years later she was its concert master.