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Too Cool for School

tocoolforschoolTaking lessons from Esperanza Spalding

Everyone knows that old saying “Those who can’t do, teach.” Well, in response to it, meet Esperanza Spalding. The standup bassist, composer, bandleader and multilingual vocalist is annihilating such skepticism left and right. At the age when most people begin their college pursuits, Spalding accomplished a jaw-dropping feat by becoming Berklee College of Music’s youngest professor ever—when she was merely 20 years old. For jazz’s sparkling up-and-coming gem it wasn’t a whirlwind, it was natural.

As a child prodigy, the Portland native picked up the violin after witnessing Yo Yo Ma’s string skills on an episode of Sesame Street at the age of 4, traded it in for the upright bass 10 years later, and ultimately entered Berklee as a student at 17, where she went on to become a historical member of faculty, not to mention, she makes  for a prime package of technical virtuosity and sass that’s already been summoned by, yes, the president and First Lady. Spalding originally planned to perform in Santa Cruz this February, but when she was asked to fly out to D.C. for the Obamas’ “Tribute to Stevie Wonder” celebration in the White House, it was not only an offer that couldn’t be refused, it was another waving flag marking the emergence of a jazz sensation. She’s already returned to the presidential abode for a second command performance, and now she finally makes her way to the Kuumbwa Jazz Center on Monday, June 22.

Currently 24, Spalding totes Esperanza, a sophomore release that touches on the things you’d expect a young performer to explore: everything. Woven around the expected jazz foundation, the album spills over with Latin, pop and R&B influences, and her vocals shine sultry in Spanish lyrics just as much as in pulsating scats. With a sense of curiosity balanced with confidence, and a hip style balanced with sophisticated musicianship, Spalding is a dazzling performer recalling the edgy likes of Alicia Keys—and then tack on some world music and jazz-standard allure. She is classy yet undeniably cool, and her show can satiate a street-savvy kid just as much as an elder chamber orchestra connoisseur. Currently on hiatus from her role as classroom mentor, and on the cusp of onstage stardom, the charming bassist chats with GT about her hopes and experiences, and the album she’s bringing to town this week.

Good Times: What attracted you to standup bass as a teenager?

First of all, it was just weird and different. I’d never seen anything like it and I just wanted to know what it was. I didn’t plan to be a bass player at all. It felt interesting and it’s a cool instrument to feel. The vibrations are really big and so at first it was just curiosity. Then, in the same day, my teacher came in and explained to me how comping works, and basically what a bass player does in a jazz band, or in a band, since I didn’t even know it was jazz. It was intriguing and I was able to somehow pick it up right away.

GT: Was there any friction when you began teaching at Berklee?

From the top down it was extremely welcoming ... I did run into some funny stuff on the ground. I think what is strange people tend to resent or fear or criticize, so I felt a little bit of resentment or friction from being young and maybe a female, I don’t know. But in the classroom everything was great.

GT: What’s the greatest thing you’ve learned, that you try to instill in your students?

Just harnessing natural ability. It’s great to have talent but it doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t sharpen. The main thing is, I don’t have a mathematical mind. I love math and I love technical things and patterns, but my mind doesn’t work like that. It’s more free, abstract, conceptual thinking. So it’s learning how your mind works, how your talent works, and figuring out how you’re going to discipline yourself to harness that in a constructive and consistent way to make sure you’re continually growing. That can be different for every student, but that’s probably the angle that I bring. Talent is a gift, whatever it is. It doesn’t mean that you automatically get to be great at something, it means you have the ability to grow rapidly at it or you have some unexplainable insight into how to grow within that medium.

GT: How did so many genres make their way into your jazz technique?

All the music that I ended up becoming familiar with was either because I met a musician who turned me onto it, or a friend, or because someone needed a bass player for a gig, and I wanted to get paid so I learned the music. So those things found a way into my ear and into my life. Obviously, some of the things like the hip hop, R&B and alternative rock came into my life just from being a teenager and hanging out with friends and listening to what they were listening to. But the rest of it came in functionally, and then I ended up loving the music.

GT: It’s rare to find a female standup bassist, vocalist, songwriter and bandleader.

Maybe. I guess standup bass. Well, Sting does it sometimes too. It’s funny because everyone thinks it’s weird and that I’m the only female, but it never really felt like that … In New York there are plenty of bass players and in the classical world a lot of women play bass. I don’t want it to be an anomaly. Those are just the resources that I’ve spent the most time with and  happen to be the ones that are on my plate. To my advantage, they ended up being odd in the eyes of everybody else, so it creates kind of a novelty and people might pay more attention than if I were a piano player. But for me, this is what I’ve always done and the bass was the only instrument around.

GT: Your name (and album title) means ‘hope’ in Spanish, and you’ve said that bringing hope is your aim. How?

Simply put, when you play music the frequency resonating above what you’re literally playing is the frequency of your personality and the work that you’ve done on your person, your being, your character. Outside of what is literally being said in my words or played in my solos and the melodies, I hope that above all of that, through the vibrations of the music, a positive and uplifting energy will be transmitted from me.


Esperanza Spalding performs at 7 p.m. & 9 p.m. Monday, June 22, at Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar Street, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25 in advance and $28 at the door. For more information, call 427-2227.

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