esperanza spalding

Like Alice in Wonderland, bass virtuoso Esperanza Spalding has placed herself in a bold and unpredictable realm for the Emily’s D+Evolution album, videos, and tour. Photo by Holly Andres

The bass phenomenon goes electric and eclectic to chase her muse through a childhood-inspired wonderland of music, poetry, dance, and theater.

Esperanza Spalding is a rare artist whose cosmic blend of intuitive creativity and hyper self-awareness has enabled her to make some audacious choices throughout her life. After 10 years of playing violin in her childhood, she got to high school and intuitively switched to upright bass. Once enrolled in college, she left the comforts of her hometown Portland State University in favor of the arguably more competitive Berklee College of Music. Upon graduating, she immediately put her education to work by becoming the youngest teacher at her alma mater.

With four albums under her belt since her 2006 debut, Junjo, Spalding has become known for singing elegant vocal melodies over often-unpredictable bass lines—and performing both with uncommon virtuosity. Her open-minded approach to selecting and arranging material has earned her accolades from jazz icons Wayne Shorter and Pat Metheny, among many others. Spalding’s sophomore release, Esperanza, came out in 2008 and quickly put the jazz world on notice. Since then, her career highlights include performing at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony with President Barack Obama in 2009, playing with Herbie Hancock at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2014, and winning four Grammys, including Best New Artist in 2011. She is the first jazz musician ever to win that category.

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Grammy-winning, jazz-soul phenom Esperanza Spalding risked everything when she left a 10-year classical career for the jazz scene. Since then, she’s played some of the most prestigious events in the world, including at the White House and Nobel Prize ceremonies. Here she ruminates on fretless bass, friendship, and the fine art of listening.

Discovering the bass, says Esperanza Spalding, was like “waking up and realizing you’re in love with a co-worker.” Although she moved to upright bass at the tender age of 15, the 27-year-old winner of Best New Artist at last year’s Grammys was already a classical concertmaster with 10 years of violin study and performance experience in her hometown of Portland, Oregon.

Switching to bass carried a slightly scandalous whiff in Spalding’s previous circles, but it didn’t matter—the appeal of jazz greats like Slam Stewart, Scott LaFaro, and Leroy Vinnegar had won heart. Indeed, even more than her prodigious talent, heart—her ability to “transmit a certain kind of personal vision and energy that is all her own”—is what Pat Metheny once described as Spalding’s “X factor.”

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