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Esperanza Spalding: Voice of the Bass

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Esperanza Spalding: Voice of the Bass

Esperanza Spalding: Voice of the Bass

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

There are many gifted singers in jazz today, and there's no shortage of accomplished acoustic bass players, but few jazz artists can do both.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: That's Esperanza Spalding, and her new CD, simply called "Esperanza," blends her soaring vocals and her deep bass lines. At 23, she's already built an impressive resume: full scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, graduated a year early to become the youngest faculty member in the school's history. And wait, there's more. She's also played with jazz legends such as Patti Austin, Pat Metheny and Herbie Hancock.

Esperanza Spalding recently stopped by our studios. She looks like a '70-era soul goddess with an outsized afro and jangly earrings. And she's very small, almost bird-like - a bit surprising, since she plays a huge instrument. Then again, her musical journey began on the much smaller classical violin. But by the time she got to high school, she says was bored musically, until she had a chance encounter with a new instrument.

Ms. ESPERANZA SPALDING (Jazz Singer, Bassist): One day, I went into high school, into the high school that I went into, and the bass was just - it's kind of funny. It was kind of heavenly, you know? I just - I walk into this room, and it literally - it's kind of below street level, and light was shining in, and the bass was just there with no case on it, because they just bought it. And I, like, walked into the room and picked it up and just started playing. And at the same time, my music teacher came in and showed me basically what a blues form was, and I just kind of started making anything up. And pretty much from that moment, I said, like, wow. This is - in these five minutes, I'm enjoying this music more than I have the last 10 years on the violin.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SPALDING: I remember thinking, this is so weird that this - like I had never played this before on this instrument that I don't know, that, like, somehow we're making music happen. And I didn't even really know anything about jazz yet or anything. So, in a way, it's like I intuitively, like, touched the subject, which is kind of like the - that's like the vein of jazz. It's that ability to immediately be able to communicate with someone that you don't know. And in those first, like, five minutes of this instrument that was completely foreign to me, in a way, I, like, touched right upon that vein. I mean, I hit it. I hit that nerve. Now, after nine years, everything I've learned about jazz kind of all comes back to that first realization in that room.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: What was the soundtrack in your household? What kind of music did you grow up with?

Ms. SPALDING: Actually, a lot of singing. My mom used to make a song for everything. It's funny, because as a child, my brother and I used to joke, like when we'd be asleep and we'd hear her singing, and it's coming up the stairs, it was, like, no. We have to go to school.

NORRIS: That's how she'd wake you up?

Ms. SPALDING: Yeah.

NORRIS: What would she sing?

Ms. SPALDING: There was this song, she'd go - I can't remember the lyrics because it was in Spanish. But she goes...

(Singing in Spanish)

And then something...

(Singing in Spanish)

Like, she would wake us up with that.

NORRIS: Beautiful morning.

Ms. SPALDING: Yeah, I mean, exactly. And that's really beautiful. It's a shame I was so - I had such an aversion to school that I couldn't appreciate her singing.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: When you perform, you stand. You play the bass, and you also sing. And it's interesting because sometimes you're playing these sort of low, deep grooves on the bass, but you're singing in a fairly high octave. Two very separate things are going on. And we can actually really hear that. There's one track in particular, track five. Why don't we take a listen to that?

Ms. SPALDING: Sure, yeah.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SPALDING: (Singing in Spanish)

Maybe the reason that you hear so distinctly that difference between the voice and the bass, you think about it because I'm the same person doing it. But in any musical setting, you have these extremes of registers and frequencies, and that's what makes a band sound full and beautiful.

NORRIS: Texture.

Ms. SPALDING: Textures, yeah. Different textures and colors and sounds. And for me, it doesn't feel strange. It feels as natural to me as I think playing piano must feel. You hear the separation. You hear how the melodies in your left and you right hand fit together. So, for me, I'm kind of doing those two extremes just with one person, and it allows me to kind of lead the listener in different ways, 'cause I'm really controlling two of the most important parts of the group - in my opinion, of course.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SPALDING: (Singing in Spanish)

NORRIS: You sing in Spanish and in Portuguese.

Ms. SPALDING: That's right. Mm-hmm.

NORRIS: And in some cases, you sing in lyrics that are almost a language of their own. Would you call it scatting or vocal-ese?

Ms. SPALDING: Yeah. I don't - it's so weird...

NORRIS: Esperanza? A language all its own?

Ms. SPALDING: Esperanza. That's what it is. Esperanza. I don't know. I don't like the word scat anymore, because I learned what it literally means. And it literally means pooping, if I can say that on the radio? I don't know if I can. I just feel like I'm playing like a horn player. I mean, I'm soloing or playing a - and singing a melody. Like, a track like "I Adore You" is a song that I wrote. And I thought about putting lyrics to it, but it doesn't make sense, because that type if singing, it's like a very fast melody that, literally, a horn player or piano player would play. You know? So why would I put lyrics to it? It's good how it is, you know?

(Soundbite of song, "I Adore You")

NORRIS: A lot of people are worried about the future of jazz, worried that your generation won't embrace or support the it. Do you worry about that? Do you share those worries?

Ms. SPAULDING: Yes and no. I see what many people are talking about when they say that. But part of the problem that I think there is that when we say the word jazz, most people conjure up a very archaic art form. When you really think about what jazz evolved into, it literally evolved into every art form that we have now. I think neo soul has all the elements of jazz, and I'm sure that hip-hop has all - every single element. And as long as young people care enough to find what that true art is, they'll always be exposed and interested in jazz, because it's there.

(Soundbite of song, "I Adore You")

NORRIS: Esperanza, it's been a pleasure talking to you.

Ms. SPAULDING: My pleasure. Thank you.

NORRIS: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of song, "I Adore You")

NORRIS: And you can hear more from the album "Esperanza" at our Web site, npr.org/music.

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