ESPERANZA SPALDING (PDF) by qingyunliuliu


“Isn‟t she terrific? I love listening to Esperanza, she is wonderful.”
President Barack Obama

“She was such a series of contradictions; this little-bitty woman with an Afro and a bass with that angelic voice
playing jazz. You know, I love that…”
Michelle Obama

“Since the 2008 release of Esperanza (Heads Up), Ms. Spalding has been the recipient of a truly unusual amount of
goodwill. A smart, surefooted bassist and a frolicsome, irrepressible singer, she does her part to justify the
The New York Times

“Spalding's original compositions sound like standards already.”

“Needless to say, any genre-based view of jazz as something that should be hemmed in by any stylistic rules does
not apply in her world.”
The LA Times

“Esperanza Spalding has quickly demonstrated that she‟s an artist of great beauty, grace and daring…she‟s become
one of the most exciting artists on the music scene.”

“A breath of fresh air within the contemporary jazz establishment…an artist who harbors no qualms about following
wherever her muse leads.”

“[Spalding‟s] more than pleasant or agreeable: She‟s legitimately great at music, period. My happiness is in seeing
that a creative musician can reach lots of people with a genuine message. And I think her upcoming album,
Chamber Music Society, proves it better than anything she‟s put out on disc to date.”

“The versatile 25-year-old bassist/singer — who has played with The Roots and Stevie Wonder and for Prince and
President Obama — delivers a sophisticated fusion of classical music and jazz flavored with R&B, pop and Brazilian
music. The intimate small-group setting and her warm vocals make Music an experience worth savoring.”
USA Today

“There‟s no doubt about her striking stage presence, versatile feminine voice, expertise on standup and electric
basses, and the unusual joy and passion she radiates.”

“[Spalding‟s] fusion of jazz, contemporary classical and other sources, including some understated funk, is as lively
as it is original.”
Washington Post

“With Chamber Music Society Esperanza Spalding serves notice that she‟s not about to be pigeonholed, nor is she
one to take the easy route. Success may have found her early on, but she will not kiss its ass.”

“This „prodigiously talented‟ bassist and chanteuse has already garnered critical praise for her inventive approach
to contemporary jazz.”

“The coolest person we‟ve ever had on the show.”
David Letterman

                                                                  NEW NOTE
                                                                    Esperanza Spalding’s music.

                                                                    bY JOHN COlApiNTO

                                      N     ot long ago, Esperanza Spalding, the
                                            prodigiously gifted bassist, singer,
                                      and composer, performed at Yoshi’s,
                                                                                     door at the side of the stage to get Spal­
                                                                                     ding’s autograph, snap pictures, and talk to
                                                                                     her. One tongue­tied middle­aged man
                                      a posh sushi restaurant and jazz club in       commented on her hands. “They’re small
                                      downtown Oakland, California. Spal­            for a bassist,” he said. Spalding looked into
                                      ding, twenty­five years old, was playing        her open hands, which, apart from the
                                      bass with the pianist McCoy Tyner, who,        thick white calluses on her fingers, might
                                      as part of the John Coltrane Quartet in        have belonged to a ten­year­old. “They’re
                                      the early sixties, helped create some of the   just small for a person,” she said.
                                      most influential jazz music ever recorded,          When she returned backstage to col­
                                      including the 1965 album “A Love Su­           lect her paycheck, Coltrane hugged her
                                      preme.” For the Yoshi’s gig, Tyner had         and said, “You sounded beautiful every
                                      enlisted Coltrane’s son, Ravi, on saxo­        night.” Mela kissed his fingertips, banged
                                      phone, and a brilliant young musician          a fist against his heart, and pointed at her.
                                      named Francisco Mela on drums. But it          A few minutes later, in the greenroom at
                                      was clear from the buzz that attended          the end of the hall, Tyner told me that
                                      Spalding’s arrival onstage that a consider­    Spalding “understands how to play with
                                      able percentage of the audience of three       this kind of group. She understands the
                                      hundred and thirty had come to see her.        form, where the verses and choruses come,
                                          Female instrumentalists have been a        how solos work. She’s the real thing.”
                                      rarity in jazz, and Spalding looked incon­         Jazz thrives on apprenticeship and
                                      gruous amid the standard tableau of the        anointment; before Charlie Parker died,
                                      jazz concert: dudes in boxy blue suits. A      he is said to have told the saxophonist
                                      slender, light­skinned black woman with        Sonny Stitt that he was giving him the
                                      a natural Afro and a serenely beautiful        “keys to the kingdom.” But, when I re­
                                      face, she was dressed in a frilled­front       peated Tyner’s praise to Spalding a few
                                      sleeveless blouse, black vest, and black       days later, in Austin, Texas, where she re­
                                      pants. When the band began to play, her        cently set up house, she smiled and said,
                                      left hand swarmed the neck of her upright      “Wow, that’s great,” and then qualified
                                      bass, spidering out speedy arpeggios and       her enthusiasm. While playing jazz stan­
                                      dashing upward in chromatic runs. When         dards with the seventy­one­year­old
                                      she took a solo, mid­set, on the 1957 Col­     Tyner was “fun and intense,” she said, it
                                      trane tune “Moment’s Notice,” she started      did not represent her ultimate goals as an
                                      slow, mapping out the quick­shifting           artist. “In no way is this meant to discredit
                                      chords with a comfortable walking bass         or to make him seem less significant for
                                      line high up the neck. Suddenly she was        what he’s contributed,” she said, “but it
                                      leaning over the instrument, her left hand     kind of reaffirmed my understanding of
                                      darting down toward the sound holes, the       the music—that the most important art­
                                      index and middle fingers of her right hand      ist and the most important time is, like,
                                      blurring as she plucked out a furious bar­     right now. It’s the people who are learn­
                                      rage of sixteenth notes; then she returned     ing now, and creating new things right
                                      to the neck, her head thrown back, eyes        now. Idol worship doesn’t help this music
                                      closed, as she produced bursts of boom­        in any way.”
                                      ing fragmented notes that drew smiles
                                      from Tyner at the piano and gasps from
                                      the crowd.
                                          After the performance, the last of six
                                                                                     I  n 2008, Spalding released her major­
                                                                                        label début, “Esperanza,” which she
                                                                                     recorded as a twenty­three­year­old
                                      nights that the group played there, a line     instructor at the Berklee College of
                                      of twenty or so well­wishers crowded a         Music, in Boston. While the music was
32   THE NEW YORKER, MARCH 15, 2010
indisputably jazz, it suggested an al­
most bewildering array of influences—
fusion, funk, soul, rhythm and blues,
Brazilian samba and Cuban son, pop
balladry, chanted vocalese—with lyrics
sung in Spalding’s three languages:
English, Portuguese, and Spanish. An
ebullient mash­up of sounds, styles,
and tongues, the record seemed like
something new—jazz for the iPod
age—and it rose quickly to No. 3 on
the Billboard jazz chart, and stayed on
the chart for sixty­two weeks. The
freshness and the excitement of her
approach have led, inevitably, to her
being called the “new hope for jazz.”
    Spalding belongs to a growing
movement of young musicians (among
them Chris Potter, Kurt Rosenwinkel,
Brad Mehldau, and Jason Moran) who
have taken a less traditional approach
to the music. For years, young jazz mu­
sicians adopted a near­slavish devotion
to sounding like players from jazz’s
golden age (anywhere between the
nineteen­twenties and the arrival of
the Beatles in America, in 1964), reject­
ing the pop, rock, and fusion experi­
mentation that came in the nineteen­
seventies and eighties. The members
of the Young Lions movement, with
Wynton Marsalis the most visible
among them, fetishized staunchly non­
commercial “pure” jazz.
    Though the movement gained some
early attention—in 1993, the saxo­
phonist Joshua Redman was sponsored
by DKNY, and appeared in GQ—it              Spalding is “trying to make music for the people.” Photograph by Ethan Levitas.
proved not to be a prescription for the
long­term health of the art form. At­       music’s history, as the most dutiful of    art form in America. (He declined,
tendance at jazz concerts has been de­      the Young Lions.                           through a spokesperson, to comment
clining for years; a hit jazz album today       Spalding has a complicated rela­       on Spalding for this story, citing his
might sell forty thousand copies world­     tionship with Marsalis, whom she pro­      busy schedule.)
wide. “Esperanza” has so far sold more      fesses to admire, but whose philosophy        But beyond jazz circles Spalding has
than a hundred thousand. This is, in        of jazz is, she acknowledges, diametri­    attracted considerable notice. Prince
part, because Spalding hews closer to       cally opposed to her own. When I           invited her to Los Angeles to jam and
dance rhythms than many of her con­         asked her about him, she shrugged and      write with him; she was photographed
temporaries do. ( Jazz has become in­       said that she’d met him only twice—        for a Banana Republic advertising cam­
creasingly complicated, piling on odd       in passing, at a New York club, and,       paign; she appeared on the “Late Show
meters and abstruse melodies.) It is also   more formally, when he arrived, unan­      with David Letterman” and “Jimmy
because she sings; for audiences put        nounced, with his entire big band at a     Kimmel Live.” She recently signed on
off by the cerebral rigors of instrumen­     gig she was playing last year in Minne­    to co­star in a crime movie—making
tal improvisation, her pliant alto voice    sota. “But he didn’t come to enjoy him­    her one of the first jazz artists since
gives them something to hang on to.         self,” she said. “He was checking out if   Louis Armstrong to be taken up by
But her original songs sacrifice none of     I was legitimate.” Marsalis has never      Hollywood.
the melodic sophistication and har­         commented publicly on Spalding—a              Spalding is passionate about bring­
monic interest of jazz; and, as her gig     surprising omission for a man who, as      ing fresh influences, voices, and idioms
at Yoshi’s showed, she is as technically    the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln   to the music, to prevent jazz from be­
adept, and as serious a student of the      Center, is the leading promoter of the     coming merely “a museum piece,” as
                                                                                       THE NEW YORKER, MARCH 15, 2010       33
                                      she put it. She found encouragement            ily began sleeping on the floor. Even­
                                      in the work of Wayne Shorter, the jazz         tually, they fled across town. “There
                                      saxophonist and composer who left              we found the same thing but with a
                                      Miles Davis’s quintet in 1970 to found         white face on it,” her mother said, “and
                                      Weather Report, an electric band that          instead of heroin and crack it was
                                      abandoned the verities of straight­            meth.”
                                      ahead jazz—standards, acoustic in­                 Spalding’s mother worked several
                                      struments, swing—for an experimen­             jobs—carpenter, security guard, dish­
                                      talist music that combined rock, funk,         washer, day­care worker—but there
                                      and world­beat rhythms with dark,              was never enough money. The family
                                      sophisticated chords and melodies.             was reduced to near­homelessness
                                      She also drew inspiration from a book          many times, and on at least one occa­
                                      she read on the return flight from              sion was forced to live in the attic of
                                      Oakland to Austin after the Tyner              a friend. Yet Spalding says she was
                                      gig—“The Rest Is Noise,” the New               largely unaware of the difficulty of
                                      Yorker writer Alex Ross’s history of           their situation. “You can grow up with
                                      twentieth­century classical music. In          literally nothing and you don’t suffer if
                                      particular, she was galvanized by              you know you’re loved and valued,” she
                                      something that Richard Wagner                  told me. “A lot of people I grew up
                                      wrote in a letter to Franz Liszt. She          with, by the time they were eight they
                                      dug out the Kindle that she’d been             were completely disillusioned with the
                                      given for Christmas and read aloud:            world. They already felt this system is
                                      “ ‘I have felt the pulse of modern art         wrecked and it’s hopeless.” Spalding’s
                                      and know that it will die! This knowl­         mother, convinced that the local pub­
                                      edge, however, fills me not with de­            lic schools fostered such disillusion­
                                      spondency, but with joy.’ ” She read           ment, removed her in the middle of
                                      on to the end of the passage: “ ‘ We           fifth grade and successfully applied to
                                      shall live only in the present, in the         have her homeschooled. Because her
                                      here and now and create works for the          mother worked full time, Esperanza
                                      present age alone.’                            effectively educated herself from sixth
                                          “I relate that to how I feel about jazz    grade through eighth, checking books
                                      music,” she said. “Music is intended to        out of the library, completing lesson
                                      be for people. And circumstances and           plans, and taking tests. “We had to do
                                      people change with the decades, and            that, legally,” she said, “so my mom
                                      that’s O.K. And I think that’s what            could keep ‘homeschooling’—quote
                                      Wagner was saying, too. It was, like,          unquote.”
                                      ‘Let it go, let it breathe, let it move, you       Spalding was drawn to music early
                                      know? We’re trying to make music for           and listened to the oldies radio station:
                                      the people.’ ”                                 Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder, Smokey
                                                                                     Robinson, the Monkees, the Carpen­

                                      S   palding was born in 1984 in Port­
                                          land, Oregon, to a single mother
                                      of African­American, Asian, Native
                                                                                     ters, Earth, Wind and Fire. “That’s the
                                                                                     most influential stuff because you’re
                                                                                     little, you’re not ‘assessing’ it, it doesn’t
                                      American, and Hispanic ancestry.               have a value beyond if you like it or
                                      (Her mother asked not to be identified          not,” she said. Her mother had a piano
                                      by name for this article.) Spalding            in the apartment, and when Spalding
                                      spent her childhood, with her mother           was four she heard her struggling with
                                      and brother, who is seven years her se­        a simple piece by Beethoven. After­
                                      nior, in the King neighborhood of              ward, Spalding climbed onto the bench
                                      northeast Portland. Made up mostly of          and played the piece by ear. Soon she
                                      lower­middle­class black and His­
                                      panic families, the neighborhood de­
                                      clined sharply in the nineteen­eighties,
                                      when members of the Crips and the
                                      Bloods moved up from Southern Cal­
                                      ifornia and began fighting for control
                                      of the local drug trade. After a child
                                      was killed by a stray bullet that entered
                                      a neighboring house, Spalding’s fam­
34   THE NEW YORKER, MARCH 15, 2010
was writing her own songs on the             funk, and hip­hop on the local club cir­
piano. When she had a completed mel­         cuit, absorbing knowledge from some
ody, her mother said, “she’d arrange it      of the most seasoned players in the
in every style of music you could imag­      city—often men three times her age.
ine, from bluegrass to classical to jazz.    One important early mentor was Thara
She’d call me over, and say, ‘Look, I can    Memory, a jazz trumpeter who had
play it this way. And I can play it this     played with Natalie Cole, Joe Wil­
way, and then I can play it this way and     liams, and James Brown. Memory
this way.’ ’’                                taught classical music in Portland’s
   At the age of five, she saw Yo­Yo          community­band program, and had
Ma play cello on “Mister Rogers’             begun teaching Spalding when she was
Neighborhood” and told her mother            eight years old. “You’ve got to learn
she wanted to do that. Her mother had        what is music and what is not music—
enrolled her in a free community­band        what is cacophony,” Memory told
program that offered loans of donated         me about his teaching method. “She
used instruments, but there were no          learned at a very young age what is and
cellos available. There was a violin,        what ain’t.”
which Spalding took up. Though lax
about practicing (for several years, she
feigned sight­reading and learned her
parts by ear), she earned a spot in an
                                             I  n the course of a year, Spalding plays
                                                a hundred and fifty concert dates
                                             around the world; in 2009, she played
advanced youth orchestra, the Cham­          three times for President Obama, in­
ber Music Society of Oregon, and by          cluding, at his request, at the Nobel
fifteen was the orchestra’s concertmas­       Peace Prize ceremony, in Oslo. The
ter. She also earned a full scholarship to   schedule has constrained her private
the Northwest Academy, a private arts        life (she says that she is now too busy
high school in downtown Portland.            to have romantic relationships), and it
There she caught the attention of Brian      sharply limits the time she has for
Rose, who taught jazz­improv classes         writing new material and practicing.
and electronic music. Rose recalls once      She moved to Texas last fall in part be­
coming upon her when she was writing         cause it offers seclusion for working
out a symphonic score for strings and        and writing.
horns while listening, on headphones,            She lives in what she calls the “rich
to Latin music. “I said, ‘You can’t do       hippie” neighborhood of southwest
that!’ ” Rose recalls. “She said, ‘Oh, the   Austin, where she rents a large one­
stuff I’m writing is all in my head. I        bedroom apartment in the house of
don’t need to hear it—I already know         a musician friend, Lian Amber. Spal­
what to write.’ ”                            ding’s apartment is a quiet, comfort­
   By this time, Spalding was playing        able place with Japanese fans as lamp­
an array of instruments—piano, oboe,         shades, papier­mâché masks on the
clarinet, guitar, violin—but Rose urged      wall, a divan draped in exotically pat­
her to pick one and concentrate on it.       terned African fabric, and shelves
One day, he heard her play a few notes       crammed with books and CDs. A
on a cheap plywood standup bass in his       drum set is assembled in one corner; a
classroom. “I could just tell: O.K.,         fabric­draped upright piano that Spal­
that’s the instrument,” Rose told me.        ding bought for two hundred dollars
“She just had that look in her eye. The      on Craigslist sits in another. On a
connection was obvious.” Rose taught         nearby music stand was a two­page
her a simple blues progression, and          handwritten list of “To Do” items,
Spalding was fascinated. She returned        which included the injunctions “When
daily to fool around on the bass. “It’s      I do practice bass, practice things di­
like waking up one day and realizing         rectly related to my show”; “Little lyric
you’re in love with a co­worker,” she        writing everyday”; “Voice work and
once said.                                   agility technique.”
   Rose put together a jazz group with           I sat with Spalding one day in early
a few Northwest Academy students,            January. She was on a tight deadline to
including Spalding on bass, and they         finish the string arrangements for a
began gigging around the city. Within        song she had written for a new record
a year, she was playing jazz, blues, pop,    to be released this summer, which she
                                                                                         THE NEW YORKER, MARCH 15, 2010   35
calls “Chamber Music Society.” The
song, “Apple Blossom,” was a ballad,
sung with the Brazilian musician Mil­                                          libERTY bRAss
ton Nascimento. Using her Mac lap­
top and the GarageBand application,                            I was sitting across from the rotating sign
she played it back—a spare, melan­                             For the Liberty Brass Turning Company
choly tune featuring just her voice and
Nascimento’s over a Spanish­inflected                           Automatic Screw Machine Products
guitar. Spalding had written the lyrics
to fit precisely into the rhythm, but                           And brooding about our fathers
Nascimento had sung his part ru­                               Always on the make to make more money
bato—a speechlike tempo, slowing
slightly and speeding up—and Spal­                             Screw Machine Products Automatic
ding, in singing her part, had followed
his lead. She now decided that the                             Tender wounded brassy unsystematic
song could use something to tie down                           Free American men obsessing about margins
the rhythm. “I thought it would be
nice—since it’s kind of unpredictable                          Machine Products Automatic Screw
where things are going to land—to just
spice the song with these inhales and                          Selling every day of their God­damned lives
exhales with the strings,” she said. She                       To some Liberty Brass Turning Company
had written out string parts on staff
paper, but the lines had seemed too                            Products Automatic Screw Machine
emphatic. She decided to try improvis­
ing them with her voice. She replayed                          Until they were screwed into boxes
the song on her computer, and, in the                          And planted in plots paid and unpaid
pauses between her and Nascimento’s
singing, she leaned toward the Mac’s                           Automatic Screw Machine Products
built­in microphone and sang a series
of notes—“La leee­laa­laaaa”—then                                                              —Edward Hirsch
fell silent when the melody returned.
She made five or six passes through
the song, overdubbing, creating un­           when a woman comes in and exhib­             reversed the song a few seconds, and
expected harmonies that tugged the            its those qualities it’s automatically       tried it again.
mood into deeper melancholy. “What            associated with her having more                  From the time she started playing
I’ll do is continually go back and listen     testosterone.”                               bass, teachers have enjoined her to
to the ideas I threw out so far,” she            She picked up a fretless five­string       learn by transcribing bass lines from
said. “I’ll go ‘Mmm, that’s exactly the       electric, sat on the edge of the divan,      classic jazz recordings, but Spalding has
kind of thing I need.’ Or ‘That’s almost      and set an alarm on her watch to go off       resisted. “Ideally, they were made in the
it, maybe I’ll try another pass at that       in half an hour. Then she hit the play       moment for what was most appropri­
one section’—try to sing toward it until      button on her iPod, and the Stevie           ate for that music, for that groove and
I nail the idea I want.”                      Wonder song “Boogie On Reggae                that group of musicians making that
     When I asked Spalding about the          Woman” began to play, its compul­            music,” she said. “I’m trying to come at
rarity of female instrumentalists in          sively funky rhythms filling the room.        the bass from every other angle.” Ac­
jazz, she said, “It’s tricky. It’s program­   The bass line, which on the original re­     cordingly, she has spent hours tran­
ming. Jazz is kind of like a boys’ play­      cording was played on a Moog synthe­         scribing horn solos, and lately has taken
ground.” She pointed out that women           sizer, is baroque in its complications. It   up drumming. “Listening to drum­
began to be accepted into orchestras          begins with a series of slipping, grunt­     mers, I heard how percussive it is, it
only a few decades ago, and believes it       ing notes that Spalding reproduced by        sounds so natural,” she said. “They’re
is only a matter of time until the jazz       repeatedly sliding her finger on the          toying with this natural bounce and in­
world is as integrated. “When a woman         neck, before exploding into a finger­         terplay of movement and momentum
musician can really play, people are,         tangling series of speedy turns and riffs.    with the tension of the skin on the
like, ‘Man, she’s a monster, she sounds       Her head bobbed, and the fingers of           drum and the inertia they’ve put into
like a dude!’ Something is wrong              her left hand fluttered and moved on          the drumstick—and I wanted to be
in the mind right there. Because actu­        the neck in synchrony with the record­       able to emulate that natural rhythmic
ally that quality of power and strength       ing—until about thirty seconds in,           sound on the instrument.” She says that
and quickness—and a wittiness that’s          when she encountered a passage that          practicing simple drum patterns on the
necessary—that’s not a masculine trait.       repeatedly stumped her. “Aacch!” she         set in her living room has evened out
It’s just that it’s such a boys’ club that    screamed. She poked the iPod button,         her bass playing. She has also taken to
36        THE NEW YORKER, MARCH 15, 2010
adapting piano inventions by Bach,           “And then I had to figure it out,” she
playing one of the melodies on the bass      said.
and singing the other with her voice,            Once hired, Spalding showed her
working to produce divergent melodic         new bandmates some songs she’d writ­
and rhythmic lines with the voice and        ten. Influenced in part by such indie
fingers.                                      rock bands as Cibo Matto, the songs
   Her watch alarm went off. She hit          had twisty, unexpected melodies and
the iPod stop button and shook the           spare arrangements that lent a haunt­
cramp out of her left hand. “I just love     ing edge to Spalding’s lyrics about
everything about that bass line,” she        childhood and the recurring theme of
said. “It’s super­funky—they’re playing      escape through art and imagination.
really interesting notes of the chord        The band promptly incorporated her
scale. I’m kind of training my hand          songs into their live set.
to make those kinds of shapes—                   “We really kind of took off quickly
and training my ear. If I’m hearing a        once that happened,” Workman told
kind of groove like that, and I’m hear­      me. “We were getting a lot of attention
ing those shapes like that, my hand          and getting really good shows.” But
knows how to find it.” She laughed.           there was a downside to playing with a
“You won’t learn that from playing           bassist and singer who was only sixteen.
scales.”                                     “Most of the press we got at that time
   She reset her watch timer and began       was really focussed on her age, which re­
again.                                       ally took away from what we were do­
                                             ing—like a novelty thing,” Workman

T     here are eleven thousand eight
      hundred and fifty­seven songs
on Spalding’s iPod, ranging from clas­
                                             said. Nevertheless, Chad Crouch, the
                                             owner of a small independent record
                                             label, Hush, saw one of Noise for Pre­
sical music to Jimi Hendrix, from Joni       tend’s shows and the next day offered
Mitchell to Deee­Lite, from Stevie           them a record deal, but he suggested
Wonder to Nirvana. After her practice        that Spalding, and not Workman, fill
session, she played me a song that she       the role of lead singer on most songs. “It
wrote and recorded when she was six­         must have been really painful for him in
teen, as a member of a Portland indie        a way,” Spalding said, “though he never
band called Noise for Pretend. The           took it out on me or anything.”
song featured churning fuzz­distorted            The band released its only full­
electric guitars over which Spalding, in     length LP, “Happy You Near,” in
a low, deadpan voice distinct from her       2002, but broke up soon thereafter.
current style, sang about a children’s go­   Thara Memory had told Spalding that
cart race. When it ended, she checked        in order to reach her potential she
her laptop, then said, “On iTunes, the       needed to get out of Portland, so in the
category is ‘Rock’—so I guess I used to      fall of 2002 she moved to Boston to at­
be in a rock band!”                          tend Berklee College of Music, where
    She joined Noise for Pretend dur­        she had been accepted on full scholar­
ing her final year at the Northwest           ship. She drove herself hard, graduat­
Academy. She was introduced to the           ing in just three years while gigging
band’s founding members, Ben Work­           constantly, first with the singer Patti
man, a guitarist and singer, and Chris­      Austin’s band and later with the saxo­
tian Cochran, a drummer, by her              phonist Joe Lovano. In her second
teacher Brian Rose, who had recorded         year, she was chosen to play a concert
a CD of their material in his home stu­      with the guitarist Pat Metheny; later,
dio. “They needed a bass player,” Rose       he said that Spalding was “unlike any
told me, “and I said, ‘There’s this girl     musician I had ever run across before.
you ought to try out.’ ” At her audition,    Her unique quality is something that
Spalding was asked if she could play         goes beyond her pretty amazing musi­
bass and also sing background vocals.        cal skills; she has that rare ‘x’ factor of
Though she sang casually at home,            being able to transmit a certain per­
Spalding did not consider herself a          sonal kind of vision and energy that is
professional vocalist and had never          all her own.” Berklee hired Spalding
sung along to the bass. She told Work­       after she graduated from the school at
man and Cochran that she could do it.        the age of twenty, making her one of
                                                                                           THE NEW YORKER, MARCH 15, 2010   37
                                                                                          cess. Her music is representative of
                                                                                          that, as opposed to somebody her age
                                                                                          trying to sound like they were at their
                                                                                          peak in 1945 or 1959.”

                                                                                          B     ennett Studios, in Englewood,
                                                                                                New Jersey, is a state­of­the­art
                                                                                          recording facility housed in an aban­
                                                                                          doned train station just off the town’s
                                                                                          main strip. In mid­January, Spalding
                                                                                          spent a few days there, overseeing the
                                                                                          recording of the string arrangements
                                                                                          that I had watched her sketch out a
                                                                                          couple of weeks earlier. Present at the
                                                                                          sessions was Gil Goldstein, a jazz ac­
                                                                                          cordion player and Grammy­winning
                                                                                          arranger and producer who has worked
                                                                                          with Paul Simon and Bobby McFer­
                                                                                          rin. Hired as an arranger for Spalding’s
                                                                                          “Chamber Music Society” album,
                                                                                          Goldstein had tweaked Spalding’s
                         “I’d like to see you do this online.”                            string parts for “Apple Blossom,” the
                                                                                          tricky Nascimento duet. Although the
                                       •          •                                       two had worked smoothly through
                                                                                          most of the session, Spalding balked at
                                                                                          the changes to the song.
the youngest instructors in the college’s      tales and hadgini drums gives way to           “Your string parts are too busy,”
history.                                       Spalding’s swinging bass and Leo Gen­      Spalding told him, as they sat on a sofa
    That year, she wrote and recorded a        ovese’s piano, before Spalding breaks      in the studio’s control room.
jazz album, “Junjo.” Though released by        into singing, in Portuguese, the Milton        “Busy?” Goldstein echoed, laugh­
a tiny label in Spain, the record caught       Nascimento number “Ponta de Areia.”        ing. “No way!”
the ear of aficionados. In the hope of          Later, “I Know You Know,” an origi­            “It’s so delicate—I don’t want it to
wider distribution for her next album,         nal, begins with a stuttering funk bass    get too dense.”
she submitted a new demo to Blue Note          line that would not sound out of place         Spalding insisted on reverting
Records, home of many top jazz musi­           on a James Brown record. “She Got to       to her earlier, simpler arrangement.
cians, including Cassandra Wilson and          You” starts with what sounds like a        Goldstein assented, then went into the
Bobby McFerrin, as well as another ra­         rock drum fill, before morphing into a      soundproofed studio and began con­
cially mixed female singer, songwriter,        samba in which Spalding dresses down       ducting the trio of violin, cello, and
and instrumentalist with jazz roots—           a lover who spurned her, singing,          viola. But Spalding was not hearing
Norah Jones. But Bruce Lundvall, then          “Damn—that’s cold!” Some critics           what she wanted. She took the baton
the president of the label, passed on          thought the record was an almost too       from Goldstein, who surrendered it
signing Spalding. “They wanted the             exuberant display of Spalding’s gifts. A   without complaint. (He later told me
next Norah Jones,” Spalding told me.           reviewer for the Web site All About        that he likes it when a musician knows
“And he decided I wasn’t the next Norah        Jazz wrote, “There is a lot of ground      what he or she wants, and that it makes
Jones.” Lundvall says that he “goofed” in      covered here; and while she’s brim­        for a better recording.) She put on
not signing her, but says, “I really try to    ming with ideas, this album is crying      headphones and, following the sheet
look for original artists. I’m looking for     out for some judicious editing.” Others    music spread out in front of her on the
someone that’s not another Norah Jones         specifically praised the eclecticism of     conductor’s podium, guided the musi­
or a sound­alike.” He added, “The demo         Spalding’s approach.                       cians through the session. At one point,
just wasn’t good—but what a mistake I             “She is one of the most pure and        she demanded a retake when she
made, that’s for sure.”                        more sterling representations of what      wanted the violinist to play a certain
    She signed, instead, with Heads            jazz should have developed toward,”        note with an upward bow motion,
Up, a label based in Cleveland, and in         Greg Osby, a jazz saxophonist who has      rather than a downstroke. Later, she
late 2007 began recording “Esperanza.”         toured through Europe sharing a bill       asked the violinist to play a series of
From the opening seconds of the rec­           with Spalding, said. “She’s saying, ‘I’m   notes by plucking the strings. She was
ord, it is clear that this is the product of   a young person, I’m coming up in the       unsatisfied with the sound.
an omnivorous sensibility. A chorus of         so­called “post hip­hop” generation.’          “Maybe make that plucking more
women’s voices lightly chanting over a         She’s informed by music videos, the In­    like bells—ting, ting, ting,” she said.
syncopated percussion section of cro­          ternet, and digital immediate global ac­       The violinist mimicked the motion
38        THE NEW YORKER, MARCH 15, 2010
she had mimed at the podium and                ecstatic high notes. Between songs, she        tired. She used a microwave to warm up a
brought out a bell­like sound.                 kept up a steady, intimate patter, at one      plate of food, then sat at a table with her
   “Yes!” Spalding said.                       point telling the audience, “This is a tran­   bandmates, eating gingerly, barely able to
                                               sitional period for me. I’m going to gain a    open her mouth to insert the forkfuls of

A      few weeks later, at the end of Janu­
       ary, she played a show with her
band at the Grand Opera House, an or­
                                               lot of insight—I’m getting my wisdom
                                               teeth pulled.” Musically, the set was like a
                                               declaration of Spalding’s new­jazz philos­
                                                                                              food. Talk turned to the large group of fans
                                                                                              who had greeted Spalding when she got
nate theatre in downtown Wilmington,           ophy: along with her own songs, she played          “What did you think of Wynton’s
Delaware. Nothing seemed to be going           the chestnut “Body and Soul,” but rendered     manager?” Carrington asked.
right. Spalding’s regular drummer had          it nearly unrecognizable by stretching the          “What?” Spalding said. “Marsalis’s
broken his arm, and she was using a sub,       melody over a Latin 5/4 rhythm. At one         manager?”
her friend Terri Lyne Carrington. Also, a      point, she announced to the audience that          “Yeah,” Carrington said. “That guy who
few days earlier, one of Spalding’s wisdom     she was going to play “Endangered Spe­         just left—that was Wynton’s manager.”
teeth had erupted through the gum and          cies,” a Wayne Shorter song—“probably              “Don’t fuck with me,” Spalding said,
become infected. She had not had time to       my favorite song in the world.” When           chewing carefully.
see a dentist, and it was excruciating for     the crowd failed to respond with suffi­              “Yeah,” Carrington went on. “Wynton’s
her to open her mouth to sing.                 ciently vigorous clapping, Spalding mock­      manager drove two hours to hear you play.”
    Onstage, though, she projected an al­      admonished them, “That’s not nearly                “Whoa,” Spalding said. “He say why?”
most incandescent joy in playing and sing­     enough applause for Wayne Shorter!” For             “I asked him,” Carrington said. “He
ing. With her Afro teased out to a giant       one of her two encores, she strapped on        told me, ‘Hey, I’m still a music lover.’ ”
nimbus and wearing a halter top, high­         her electric bass and played “I Can’t Help         Spalding thought about this for a mo­
waisted gray pants, and high heels, she        It,” the Stevie Wonder song made famous        ment, then said, “That’s cool.” 
wielded her big­bellied acoustic bass like a   by Michael Jackson on his 1979 album
dance partner, swaying, eyes closed, as she    “Off the Wall.” The crowd roared.
plucked out rhythms and melodies on the            After the show, in the hall’s basement
strings and threw open her mouth to sing       greenroom, Spalding looked drawn and           Watch and listen to Esperanza Spalding.

                                                                                              THE NEW YORKER, MARCH 15, 2010            39

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