Breaking through

Esperanza Spalding steps up her game
By JON GARELICK  |  May 19, 2008

MORE THAN HAIR: A marketer’s dream, Spalding is walking the line between her serious jazz interests and pop stardom.

WFNX Jazz Brunch Top Five
1. Robert Walter, Cure All [Palmetto]
2. Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Lil’ Tae Rides Again [Hyena]
3. Chico Hamilton, The Alternative Dimensions of El Chico [Joyous Shout]
4. Simone, Simone on Simone [Koch Jazz]
5. Esperanza Spalding, Esperanza [Heads Up]
Nothing breaks harder than jazz. In the overall retail picture, jazz accounts for about three percent of sales, and a “hit” CD is anything that exceeds 10,000 copies. These and other jazz-fan commonplaces were repeated in David Remnick’s May 19 New Yorker story about radio announcer and jazz obsessive Phil Schaap. “The school system is creating six thousand unemployable musicians a year,” Schaap told Remnick, naming Juilliard, Rutgers, Mannes, Manhattan, and, of course, Berklee among the culprits, “plus all the high schools.”

Which is why there’s been such anticipation of Esperanza, the new CD by 23-year-old bassist/singer/composer Esperanza Spalding on the jazz-crossover Heads Up label. Not only has she rounded up the usual specialty-mag appearances and covers (Downbeat, Jazziz, Bass Player), but she has a cover coming in the industry tour-business mag Pollstar and a feature in jam-band glossy Relix, and in the coming weeks she’s doing a victory lap of late-night TV appearances: Letterman, Leno, and Jimmy Kimmel, plus NPR’s All Things Considered. Such attention for a young jazz musician these days is almost unheard of.

But it’s also understandable. Spalding, who comes to the Regattabar next Thursday, is a marketer’s dream — and that includes her backstory. She came to Berklee at 17, a home-schooled prodigy raised by a single mother in Portland, Oregon. Soon after graduating, at 20, she was teaching. She’d already been tapped for Joe Lovano’s quintet, and she’d toured with Patti Austin. On her own gigs, she sang in a light soprano in counterpoint to her flowing acoustic-bass lines — a gimmick, you might say, except that you need exceptional skill to do it well or at all. The organic flow of her solos and accompaniment was unforced, natural — she not only had fingers, she also had ears. She was young, female, black, and cute, and she had great hair.

Spalding was already the subject of widespread local buzz a couple of years ago, when she released her debut, Junjo, on the Spanish Ayva label. That album, with the Cuban rhythm team of pianist Aruan Ortiz and drummer Francisco Mela (both fellow Berklee-ites), was loose and lyrical — extended three-way conversations leavened by Spalding’s wordless vocals. Mixed on an equal level with the other instruments, her voice gave a special allure to an impressionistic masterpiece like Jimmy Rowles’s “The Peacocks.” At live shows around town — typically Ryles and Bob’s Southern Bistro — Spalding mixed and matched personnel and asked other vocalists to sit in, or occasionally her then-boyfriend, young trumpet star Christian Scott.

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  Topics: Jazz , Entertainment, Music, Francisco Mela,  More more >
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