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Giant Steps: Esperanza Spalding

Tuesday, 21 February 2017 11:49

It was a spring night in Harlem when I first saw her. In a little club that I was told was owned by Herbie Hancock - I can’t confirm that part of the story. 

I can clearly remember small delicate hands on a massive double bass and the growing afro and the tiny young woman who wore that afro like a crown. My companion had said to me earlier, we’re going to see Esperanza Spalding, she’s going to be huge. Hours later it was confirmed. She was all cool confidence, dexterity, technical proficiency and soul. Her brows furrowed when she played, her face relaxed into an easy smile when she engaged in banter. The word likable was meant for Ms.Spalding.

A few years later, she won her first Grammy, the first of four.  She was the first jazz artist to win in the Best New Artist category. I remember the headlines that night too, “who’s Esperanza Spalding.” The jazz world by that time was already hip to the young lady but the rest of the world was now in on our secret.

Young Esperanza was a violin prodigy. She had picked up the bass after seeing it lying there on the floor at her high school, it was a new addition. she describes the look of it as “heavenly” and after learning a few things that day from her teacher and letting her fingers become familiar with the instrument, so different yet so similar to her well worn violin, Esperanza had found home. She could sing as well,  and that’s where things get a little ethereal. It’s magic to hear that clear high radiant voice dancing over the heavy heavy bass sound she is so fond off. Two extremes. Compelling.

And that’s what raised so many eyebrows and opened so many ears on that first Grammy night. For the world to see Esperanza win that award an award usually reserved for scantily clothed, 10 dancers deep triple threats in heels, it was like a deep solemn bow to jazz for a new generation. Education is a big part of Esperanza recent MO - she tutors, she teaches at Berklee, she makes time for that. But she is first and foremost an explorer.  taking in music in all it’s forms - Esperanza reminding us that  jazz is a music of endless possibility and non stop adventure.

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