Bassist Esperanza Spalding, Jazz Musician With A Neo-Soul Style

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Esperanza Spalding has the sort of backstory that public relations firms dream of - and it has the advantage of being true. At four-years-old, she saw a Yo-Yo Ma performance on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and promptly asked for a violin (the pre-schooler didn't know the word cello). She taught herself and within a year (yes, at the age of five) was a member of The Chamber Music Society of Oregon, a community orchestra. She discovered her affinity for the bass while in high school after she walked into an empty classroom and found one sitting there. That led her to improvised music, a new world to the teen. 

Spalding went on to Berklee College of Music, where she graduated and became an instructor at the same time. She was 20 (the youngest faculty member ever at Berklee). She released her debut album, Esperanza, in 2008. The last two years have been filled with teaching, composing, performing, and lately recording. Spalding has two new CDs coming up, one of classical music and the other of her version of "radio ready" tunes. Spalding makes her first appearance with Da Camera this weekend. 

Rocks Off spoke with Spalding about her upcoming concert, her discovery of the bass and improvised music and what terms she thinks best describe her music. 

RO: When did you start singing as well as playing?

ES: I started singing as a basic function of trying to learn songs. I couldn't read the chord changes in the jazz charts, so I would get with a piano player friend of mine and he would teach me the songs by ear. The only way that I could memorize them was by singing the melody and playing the root. That way I could hear the harmony. He said, "You know, we should write this in. You can really sing." But I didn't take him seriously.

Then I auditioned for a pop band and they asked if I could sing backup vocals and play bass. I didn't really know if I could, but I just said, "Yes, of course I can." That really led me to start cultivating the voice and the singing.

Rocks: A lot of what you sing is what most people call scat. I understand you don't like that word.

​ES: It sounds like a derogatory term. It literally means just stuff, something that was just thrown out. And that's not what it is at all even though some people say that it sounds that way.

Words carry a lot of symbolism. I just think that word is too loose, and not respectful enough of the art form that it is.

Rocks: Do you think of your voice in the same way that you think of the bass, as if it were an instrument?

ES: When I'm improvising, I certainly do. When I'm singing word, I'm more like an actor or poet because that's literally what you're doing; you're recreating an emotion or event in order to draw people into a story.

Rocks: You've been referred to as a "jazz musician with neo-soul style." Is that how you describe yourself?

ES: Ah ... (laughs). Those are words that other people have to come up with to try to describe me to someone else who's never heard me. That's not how I see it. I'm making music that has never been done before because I've never been here before, not that I remember.

Our music has a wide element of improvisation, so that's where the jazz part comes from. But harmonically, melodically, we draw from everywhere. Just like Earth, Wind and Fire drew from everywhere. They weren't just listening to soul and funk bands, they were listening to everyone but they had their own unique sound. And they were part of a movement that now we call funk or soul.

I don't know what the answer about what to call me is yet. I think maybe in twenty years people will look back and say, "Oh, that's part of the blank period." Then I'll know what I am.

Esperanza Spalding performs at 8 p.m., Saturday, April 24. Wortham Theater Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-524-5050 or visit www.dacamera.com. The concert is sold out. 

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