Esperanza Spalding was easily the most unlikely contender for the Grammy’s Best New Artist Category. In 2011, she beat Drake, Florence + The Machine, Justin Bieber and Mumford & Sons to win the award.
Although she’s become an accomplished vocalist, Spalding’s first calling is as a jazz bass player. Her massive afro hairstyle and progressive attitude make her seem like a throwback to the early 1970s. Her music draws from a number of different styles, but Spalding says she isn’t without musical bias.
“I do have musical prejudices,” says Spalding, “but I guess not against any genre. I’ve always said I don’t like hard rock, but I do love Nine Inch Nails, so I don’t know what that means!”
Spalding is animated and enthusiastic answering questions on the phone.
The question of what was the first music that made a deep impression on her elicits a happy barrage of examples.
“I used to love Raffi on ‘Sesame Street’ and Bobby McFerrin,” says Spalding.
Then there were the Christmas albums, especially the Harry Belafonte one that she wanted to listen to all year long. She also loved classical music, especially Beethoven.
“And then I heard Rimsky-Korsakov and it was just like heaven. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. I would listen to that over and over. ... Then there’s all that stuff I heard when I was a teenager. I just dug what there was to dig!”
She began her aural excavation early. Born and raised in Portland, Ore., Spalding began teaching herself how to play violin at age 5. Over the next few years she learned guitar, oboe and clarinet, in addition to joining the Chamber Music Society of Oregon (on violin) before falling in love with the bass at the age of 14 and playing blues and jazz.
She went on to study at the Berklee College of Music, where she studied bass from John Lockwood and was championed by guitar great Pat Metheny. After graduating, Spalding became one of the school’s youngest teachers.
She released her first album, “Junjo,” in 2006, but it wasn’t until her 2008 album “Esperanza” that listeners began to take notice. The disc went to No. 3 on the Billboard Jazz Album chart and the next disc, 2010’s “Chamber Music Society,” went to No. 1 in jazz and No. 38 on the Billboard 200 — an impressive entry for a jazz disc. Her most recent disc, “Radio Music Society,” has upped the ante even more.
Spalding says you can intellectualize music, but ultimately it’s not up to you whether you like it.
“No matter how many decisions we make with our minds about music, it’s a visceral experience. It’s a physical experience. Our brain is translating for us the sound waves that go through the cochlea in our ear, but we can’t help our reaction to something. I don’t think we can help how we feel about that music. When I hear something, I want more of it or I don’t want any of it. The way I ingest music, if I like it a lot chances are I’m going to try to do it. Because of my relationship to music, I like to do it. I like to try it and write it and inevitably through osmosis, it finds its way into my music.”
And where she finds inspiration can be from anywhere, not necessarily the most accomplished musical technicians.
“If somebody has a great idea, you’re looking for the idea,” she says. “You can read an incredible essay and you’re not thinking about the prose. Well, maybe you are if you are a writer. But you might have gotten this incredible insight and say, ‘Wow, I really learned something here’ even though the prose is a little wonky. But if the writing is really good you might pick up stylistic cues from writers you admire.”
Through the years, Spalding has gotten to perform and create music with a number of artists who she admires, but when gigs with beloved musicians fall through, she’s doesn’t fret.
“A few years ago I was going to play with Chick Corea and it didn’t happen. Then it did happen last year and I was three years better as a player!”
For aspiring musicians, she has a little advice:
“You just have to do it a lot. If you have three hours a day or you have 45 minutes a day, you just do it. Talk to a teacher to help you structure your time. It’s amazing what will happen if you do it every day.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, April 14
Where: Tennessee Theatre
Tickets: $49.50, $36.50, available at Knoxville Tickets outlets, 865-656-4444, www.knoxvilletickets.com
© 2013, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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