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Esperanza Spalding: Branching from the bass

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Weekly
Johann SautyBassist-singer Esperanza Spalding makes her Aspen debut, appearing in a Jazz Aspen Snowmass concert at Belly Up Aspen.
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ASPEN – Esperanza Spalding is hesitant to say too much about her next album, which is still in the early stages of recording. But she does reveal one hope for the album, which will be her third: that it will be a double CD.”I wrote way too much music for the last CD,” she said by phone from East Lansing, Mich. “I have way too much music I need to get out.”Such are the troubles for a 24-year-old singer and bassist with overflowing curiosity – a head bursting with musical ideas, and barely enough space and time to express them all.That last album – “Esperanza,” released last year – was an effort to establish and announce the core of Spalding’s artistry. “That was as much of my musical personality, while still making it relatively related and balanced,” she said. “We’ve established who we are. Now we can move on. I can branch out more, and figure out ways to bring all my influences in a very harmonious way.”In fact, “Esperanza” found her branching out plenty. Over the album’s 12 tracks – nine written by Spalding – she covers hard-driving instrumental bebop, Brazilian rhythms and vocal pop that sometimes connects to the straight-ahead jazz tradition, and at other times puts a listener in the mind of Broadway. There are also undertones of contemporary r&b and pop. The foundation of it all is Spalding’s playful, swinging bass lines.And already, she is looking to incorporate more elements. “The new music is really different,” said Spalding, who makes her Aspen debut Wednesday, June 24, at Belly Up, leading her quartet to a gig in Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ extended June Festival format. (Opening the show, and also making their local debut, is Naturally 7, a New York a cappella group.) “I can’t say ultimately where it’s heading. But right now, there are two branches. We rock out more than we used to. It’s a heightened thing – lots of improvisation and communication, but a heightened energy on-stage. And things that are more recognizable, more accessible to a broader audience.”The other branch may be the opposite. Spalding says that some of her music is akin to Third Stream, a style that emerged in the ’50s that fuses classical and jazz. “They’re not song forms, but longer forms. On the edge of Third Stream, because I hear strings with it.” she said. ••••Spalding started out as a classical musician. A native of Portland whose heritage is a mix of African-American, Welsh and Spanish, she picked up violin at the age of 5, and was playing in Oregon orchestras and chamber music groups almost immediately after.At 15 came the big musical jolt. Spalding put her hands on the bass, and instantly felt at home. “I touched the bass the first few times, and I just loved the sound. It was the instrument that got my attention,” she said. She still isn’t sure why the bass captured her more than the violin: “When you fall in love with a person, it’s hard to say exactly why. It’s a combination of elements that resonate with you.”The move into jazz, however, was less mysterious. Seeing Spalding playing an acoustic bass, other musicians automatically assumed she played jazz. Or at least that’s what they hired her to do. Spalding was willing to move in that direction, although, having hardly any background in jazz, she focused at first not on the bass parts, but on the overall sound. Only after a while did she begin to pick out what the bassists were doing melodically and harmonically, and paid attention to such jazz bassists as Leroy Vinegar, Scott LaFaro, Ray Brown and Slam Stewart.Spalding began to add singing to her repertoire when she auditioned for a pop-rock band, Noise for Pretend. She wanted to be the band’s guitarist, and found that she could only play guitar if she sang as well. The group liked her better as a bassist than guitarist – but also liked her voice enough to appoint her singer.Her fondness for Brazilian came through the mix tapes that her musician friends in Portland would pass around. Spalding found herself continually attracted to the Brazilian rhythms. When she moved to Boston, to attend the Berklee College of Music, she intentionally sought out the city’s Brazilian musicians, to further that thread of her education.If there are any doubts about Spalding’s skills as a straight-ahead jazz bassist, they are probably erased by her association with Joe Lovano, the first-rate saxophonist. Spalding met Lovano when she was at Berklee, and did some touring with him when, after three years, she left the school. Spalding is a member of Lovano’s latest group, Us Five, which released its debut album, “Folk Art,” last month. The album has Spalding as a bassist only.A few months ago, Spalding – who has dropped her guitar ambitions, but plays piano instead – picked up the violin for the first time in a decade. Fooling around with some Bartk violin quartets, she was stunned by how quickly playing classical violin came back to her.”It’s weird,” she said. “It’s in the system. So the violin may come back sometime soon.”••••Spalding will be joined by another star of the jazz bass in the second part of Jazz Aspen’s June Festival. Christian McBride, Jazz Aspen’s artistic director, is set to perform with saxophonist Loren Schoenberg and guitarist Russell Malone, at a venue still to be determined. McBride comes armed with “Kind of Brown,” the debut album by his current quintet, Inside Straight. It is the first release under McBride’s name since the 2006 triple-CD, “Live at Tonic,” and his first studio album as a leader since 2003’s “Sci-Fi.”The second week of the June Festival also features free performances on the Cooper Avenue mall, Thursday through Saturday, June 25-27. Among the bands are those participating in Jazz Aspen’s JAS Academy Summer Sessions program: the Mario Abney Quintet, the Lisa Henry Quartet and the Charenee Wade Quartet.stewart@aspentimes.com


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