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From the beginning of her life to her current success as a creative musician, ESPERANZA SPALDING has charted her own course. The young bassist/vocalist/composer was one of the biggest breakout stars of 2011 – not just in jazz, but in all genres of music. Her 2011 Grammy for Best New Artist was unprecedented – the first time a jazz musician had won the award – but Spalding continues to make the unprecedented the norm.
Born in Portland, Oregon, Spalding grew up in a single-parent home and learned early lessons in the meaning of perseverance and moral character from the role model whom she holds in the highest regard to this day – her mother.
But even with a rock-solid role model, school did not come easy to Spalding, although not for any lack of intellectual acumen. She was both blessed and cursed with a highly intuitive learning style that often put her at odds with the traditional education system. On top of that, she was shut in by a lengthy illness as a child, and as a result, was home-schooled for a significant portion of her elementary school years.
However, the one pursuit that made sense to Spalding from a very early age was music. At age four, after watching classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma perform on an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the roadmap was suddenly very clear. “That was when I realized that I wanted to do something musical,” she says. “It was definitely the thing that hipped me to the whole idea of music as a creative pursuit.”
Within a year, she had essentially taught herself to play the violin well enough to land a spot in the Chamber Music Society of Oregon, a community orchestra that was open to both children and adult musicians. She stayed with the group for ten years, and by age 15 she had been elevated to a concertmaster position.
But by then, she had also discovered the bass, and all of the non-classical avenues that the instrument could open for her. Suddenly, playing classical music in a community orchestra wasn’t enough for this young teenager anymore. Before long she was playing blues, funk, hip-hop, and a variety of other styles on the local club circuit.
Berklee College of Music was the place where the pieces all came together and doors started opening. After a move to the opposite coast and three years of accelerated study, she not only earned a B.M., but also signed on as an instructor in 2005 at the age of 20 – an appointment that has made her one of the youngest faculty members in the history of the college. She was the 2005 recipient of the prestigious Boston Jazz Society scholarship for outstanding musicianship.
Spalding has gone through several phases, which have been well documented during her brief recording career. Her journey as a solo artist began with the 2006 release of Junjo, on the Spanish label Ayva Music, which featured pianist Aruán Ortiz and drummer Francisco Mela. She presented the many different sides of her writing on Esperanza, her 2008 international debut recording for Heads Up, which quickly topped Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Chart and became the year’s best selling album worldwide by a new jazz artist. Numerous awards and appearances followed, including an invitation by President Barack Obama to appear at both the White House and the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony, and an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman that found Letterman and bandleader Paul Shaffer proclaiming the young musician the “coolest” guest in the three-decade history of the program.
“The objective of Esperanza was to show many sides of my musical personality,” Spalding explains; “but I also imagined that my next records would be built around a more concrete project-concept.” What followed, Chamber Music Society from 2010 and her newly released Radio Music Society, made it clear that her initial triumphs were just the beginning.
Returning to her ever-expanding book of musical sketches, “taking my notes and organizing them into something coherent,” Spalding began with Chamber Music Society, the 2010 release on which the bassist was joined by longtime colleagues Leo Genovese (keyboards) and Terri Lyne Carrington (drums), plus percussionist Quintino Cinalli, vocalists (including the legendary Milton Nascimento) and a string trio (arranged by Gil Goldstein and Spalding). The disc was another instant chart topper and gained multiple awards, none more imposing than the Best New Artist Grammy.
Spalding’s latest release, Radio Music Society, expands the cast to include, among many others, jazz legends Joe Lovano, Jack DeJohnette, and Billy Hart; hip-hop giant Q-Tip, Algebra Blessett, Lalah Hathaway, Gretchen Parlato, and Lionel Loueke, among an array of notable vocalists; and Portland mentors Janice Scroggins and Dr. Thara Memory, as well as the horn section of Memory’s American Music Program ensemble.
Spalding continues to spread her message around the globe. In addition to over 110 Chamber Music Society concerts, she still found time to tour with Joe Lovano’s US 5, perform at Rock In Rio with Milton Nascimento, play at Prince’s “Welcome 2 America” tour, and join Wayne Shorter in celebrating Herbie Hancock’s 70th birthday at the Hollywood Bowl. As Jeff Baker of The Oregonian once raved of her electrifying talent, “This was about art, performed at the highest level by someone with the vision, talent, and determination to make it happen”.