Esperanza Spalding

Fuel for the fire

Esperanza Spalding may have gotten quite a jump-start to her career, but she insists she’s still trying to live up to her burgeoning stardom.

By Naila Francis

The temptation, says Esperanza Spalding, is one that enthralls many who stumble upon the double bass. Having tried her hand at piano, violin, clarinet and oboe, the ever-curious artist was 15 when she encountered the large bowed string instrument goofing off in the band room at school.

“This happens to anybody who’s never played acoustic bass,” she says of the instrument’s unspoken invitation. “You put your head on it and play it and the vibration is really deep and really loud and it just resonates in your brain.”

While not everyone who has the experience is tempted to learn the instrument, for Spalding, the urge to further explore was compelling, especially since she had grown tired of playing the violin.

“At the beginning, it was just the tone — so deep and full and round and exciting. The sound was awesome,” she says, recounting her efforts to play a piece she’d been learning on violin on the bass.

Then a music teacher entered the room and although he jokingly asked her if she wanted to play bass, he taught her a blues line around which he encouraged her to improvise. Spalding was sold.

“I thought, ‘This is what I’ve been trying to do this whole time. This is what fits,’ ” says the Jersey City resident.

Today, at all of only 23 years old, she is on the fast track to an acclaimed career as a multilingual vocalist, bassist and composer. She brings with her an impressive resume that includes being the youngest faculty member in the history of Berklee College of Music — she signed on at age 20 — and having already worked with artists such as Pat Metheny, Stanley Clarke, Herbie Hancock and Joe Lovano. Her first album, “Junjo,” which she produced, was released on a Spanish label, but last month, Spalding made her big-label debut with a self-titled album released on Heads Up International, a division of Concord Music Group.

And while her first disc featured primarily her wordless vocals and bass stylings, “Esperanza” is a bolder, more expansive project on which she collaborates with a crew of A-list musicians, from flamenco guitar virtuoso Nino Josele and saxophonist Donald Harrison to trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and drummer Otis Brown. A rich melange of influences that infuses both the traditional and progressive jazz traditions with flourishes of soul, rhythm and blues, pop and world music, the CD is both a showcase for her diaphanous vocals and her prodigious instrumental technique. Spalding sings in English, Spanish and Portuguese, her voice gliding lithely through breezy samba-styled rhythms and reinterpreted jazz standards, smoky ballads and spirited, seemingly extemporaneous arrangements. Often, she displays a deft facility at vocalizing in a non-lyric-based style that keeps pace with her fleet fingers.

It’s a sound, she says of the album, that builds on the spontaneity and improvisation of jazz while harkening back to her days playing blues, funk, hip-hop and other styles of music as a teenager on the club circuit in Portland, Ore., where she grew up.

“There are all these sounds outside of jazz that I’m just as happy and familiar with,” says Spalding, who performs Saturday at the Festival Pier at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia. “And I wanted to bring … jazz into an arena with all these other sounds that would still be cool to a jazzer but would also reach as many people as possible and still keep my musical integrity and vision.”

While much has been made of her status as a prodigy, she is quick to downplay such grandiose assertions. Still, she was 5 when she picked up the violin and was also fond of tinkering on the home piano. Admitting to being a “strange child,” Spalding was an avid learner who nonetheless struggled in the traditional educational system.

“I always want to do way more than I can. I’d see the lesson plan in, like, second grade and I would want to learn more than that. I was just so bored with the pace,” she says. “I’m not a stagnant person. I like to move forward. If there’s the opportunity to excel, even if it’s hard, I want to pursue it.”

Chronic pneumonia eventually forced her to be home-schooled through most of her elementary school years. At 16 — after leaving high school but still obtaining her GED — she enrolled at Portland State University to study classical music and jazz. By that time, she had already been elevated to concertmaster of the Chamber Music Society of Oregon, Portland’s community orchestra, was writing and composing music and had been playing with an impressive cast of local musicians whom she met through a community cultural program for poor inner-city kids in which her mom had enrolled her.

When a professor at Portland State encouraged her to apply to Berklee at 17, Spalding didn’t even know what Berklee was, but she auditioned anyway, got in and found the money to stay by landing a gig touring as the bass player with Patti Austin after her first semester, which generated more work with other musicians. When she got the chance to work on a CD project with jazz guitarist Metheny and vibraphone virtuoso Gary Burton while still at Berklee, it was Metheny who encouraged her to pursue a career in music, as Spalding was considering political science as well, looking to make more of a tangible difference in the world beyond her creativity.

But what had always come most naturally to her also offered an unexpected platform. Ever the student, reading up on all the subjects that interest her, from sustainable agriculture to math — “my bag when I’m traveling weighs, like, 50 pounds because I stuff all these books in there,” she jokes — she has found that as a musician, people are more willing to listen to her views on such subjects than they would an expert.

“The more you know, the more it shows in your music. As Sam Cooke said, ‘You have to read a lot of history to have something to put into your music,’ ” says Spalding, who still teaches at Berklee.

“I’d like to say that this happens to anyone who just follows their dream, but that’s not always true. I’ve gotten a lot of things that I haven’t really earned yet,” she says of her stunning journey thus far. “That refuels my fire. I have all these amazing opportunities that have been placed in my path, and I want to make sure I can meet them equally and just do justice to the opportunities and blessings that I’ve been given.”

–  The Intelligencer