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Esperanza Spalding: Grammy talent evident, back in 2008

Esperanza Spalding won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist Sunday night in Los Angeles. Just a few years ago, Esperanza Spalding spent time in Boston - first as a student, then as a teacher at the world-renowned Berklee College of Music.

By / February 14, 2011

Esperanza Spalding poses with her award during the 53nd annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, California on February 13.

Gabriel Bouys/AFP Photo/Newscom

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Esperanza Spalding ascended music's biggest stage Sunday night at the 53rd annual Grammy Awards when she was selected as Best New Artist. Not that long ago, she was a student at Boston's Berklee College of Music, studying bass and vocals. In 2008, her debut album stayed on Billboard charts for 70 weeks. At the time, Monitor staff writer Stephen Humphries profiled Ms. Spalding as a professional musician and Berklee instructor – the youngest ever.

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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.

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."

IN PICTURES: Grammy Awards 2011

"[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.

Spalding has worked with saxophonist Joe Lovano and bassist Stanley Clarke. She's even been the opening act for comedian Bill Cosby, who offered to find her a record deal. She beat him to it.

"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."

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