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BIOGRAPHY - Esperanza Spalding


Esperanza Spalding 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, making her the first jazz artist to win the award. Spalding had intended to play cello, 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. The school was not a good fit, but the bass was. Spalding found high school "easy and 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. Spalding says that for her discovering the bass was like "waking up one day and realizing you're in love with a co-worker". 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. Her band teacher showed her a blues line for the bass which she later used to secure her first gig. After that, she went in to play the bass daily and gradually fell in love. 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. 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, before she started performing vocals for Noise for for Pretend. 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. In a 2008 interview, she said, "What 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."Spalding had begun performing live in clubs in Portland, Oregon as a teenager, securing her first gig at 15 in a blues club when she could only play one line on bass. 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. According to Spalding, it was a chance for her to stretch as a musician, reaching and growing beyond her experience. Her early contact with these "phenomenal resources", as she calls the musicians who played with her, fostered her sense of rhythm and helped nurture her interest in her instrument. Patti Austin hired Spalding to tour with her internationally after Spalding's first semester at Berklee, where Spalding supported the singer on the Ella Fitzgerald tribute tour "For Ella". 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. She continued to perform with Austin periodically for three years. During the same period, while at Berklee, Spalding studied under saxophonist Joe Lovano before eventually touring with him. They began as a trio, expanding into a quartet before joining quintet US5 and traveling across the United States from New York to California.

She does not consider herself a musical prodigy. "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. Spalding has recorded three albums Junjo 2006, Esperanza 2008 and Chamber Music Society 2010. The first was created to display the dynamic that she felt among her trio. Though Junjo was released solely under her name, Spalding considers it "a collaborative effort." With Esperanza, Spalding's material was meant to be more reflective of herself as an artist, with musicians selected to best present that material. Ed Morales wrote in Pop Matters on June 23, 2008 that Esperanza is "a sprawling collage of jazz fusion, Brazilian and even a touch of hip-hop." 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." 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." In addition to these albums, Spalding has collaborated with Fourplay, Stanley Clarke, Christian Scott, Donald Harrison, Joe Lovano, Niño Josele, Nando Michelin, and Theresa Perez. 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. Spalding 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. She has described the saxophone player Wayne Shorter, and singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento, as heroes. She has also noted her preference for the music of Brazil.

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." 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." 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..." Spalding, 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 and that in order to write original music, one must read and stay informed about the world. She has said she models her career on those of Madonna and Ornette Coleman.


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