Unlike most mainstream entertainment critics, I must say I was not a bit surprised when I heard that jazz bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding won Best New Artist at the last edition of the Grammy awards. Sure, she was up against two artists who have a huge following and all, but I had a feeling that this nomination was not just a simple nod to jazz – it was recognition that Spalding is a rising star in the music scene, and also an incredibly talented and charismatic personality.
I first heard about Spalding a couple of years back when I saw a Billboard promo DVD that labeled her as a talent to watch. This was months before her self-titled CD (Telarc) came out in 2008. The moment I listened to her songs, I knew she was the kind of musician that appears once in a lifetime – both her phrasing on the bass and her approach to the songs mesmerized me from the first notes of her version of Jobim’s “Samba em Preludio,” which she sang in Portuguese accompanied solely by her acoustic bass.
Not that I consider myself a good predictor of talent: over the years, I have betted on countless bands and solo artists only to see them crash and burn within the major label system and then become sort of a cult or indie favorite without ever again having a chance to make it big again. But with Spalding, I felt there was a difference: she earned the respect of fans, peers and critics from day one. Also, in addition to doing her own stuff, she has recorded with countless musicians, including McCoy Tyner, Joe Lovano, Stanley Clarke, Lionel Lueke and many others – a pace only rivaled by ‘serial collaborator’ (in the words of Anoushka Shankar) Norah Jones.
Of course, the moment she got her Grammy, pop music journalists reported about it with certain disdain. I recall reading critics saying that the award went to the ‘little known’ (Entertainment Weekly) and ‘worse-selling’ (Daily News) bassist. Justin Bieber fans (known as “Beliebers”) were completely dismayed, and more recently, music exec Steve Stoute (who might as well be a beer CEO with that name) took a full-page ad on the New York Times criticizing this year’s Grammy choices, wondering how could it be that Justin Bieber, “an artist that defines what it means to be a modern artist, did not win Best New Artist?”
Mr. Souter probably has not had the opportunity to hear Spalding on stage as I have more than once. Even on smaller stages like New York’s Jazz Standard, her expertise and charm grasps everyone’s attention immediately. I remember seeing her at Summerstage in 2009, when she opened for neo-soul and jazz singer Ledisi. Before she went on, I heard many people wondering who she was (Spalding even he walked around the crowd incognito before she got on). By the time her set was over, Ledisi knew she really had to rock, since Spalding had virtually won everyone over with her opening spot.
Her charm is undeniable even when she’s not the center of attention. Last Spring, I our paths crossed during a contemporary music concert at Americas Society on Park Avenue (one of the performers was a friend of hers), and I had the opportunity to chat with her – she talked with enthusiasm about the then-unreleased Chamber Music Society and her plans for it, and also her other projects. She didn’t sound jaded at all, and she talked to me with the warmth of a friend – how many top musicians do that?
I think Esperanza Spalding is part of a new generation that will change jazz as we know it – my personal dream piano trio has her, Hiromi Uehara on piano and Jason Marsalis on drums. There are other cats moving things in this ‘dead’ genre – pianists Eldar and Robert Glasper are two that come to mind offhand as I write. Bieliebers and Drake fans might disagree with me, but Spalding might be the push that jazz needs to make a comeback – don’t be surprised if she is playing stadiums in the future in the same manner that Return to Forever did four decades ago