Upright citizen

Bass players who sing and conjure razor-sharp counterpoint are rare in jazz, and those who sing their own lyrics rarer still. It was this combination that won Esperanza Spalding last year’s best newcomer Grammy, the first jazz musician to do so. The technically gifted, fey-voiced American’s third CD, Chamber Music Society, was at the head of Billboard’s jazz and contemporary album chart and she had several hugely prestigious gigs under her belt – in 2009 alone honouring Stevie Wonder at the White House and performing at the Nobel Peace Prize concert in Oslo.

Nevertheless, Spalding, now aged 27, was little known outside jazz, and with the pop acts Drake, Mumford & Sons, Justin Bieber and Florence and the Machine lined up against her, to say her Grammy victory came as a surprise is an understatement. Some Bieber fans were so incensed they defaced Spalding’s Wikipedia entry. “Justin Bieber deserved it go die in a hole”, was one of the more printable comments, reported the online gossip site Gawker.

Spalding claims not to have noticed the more extreme reactions. “Maybe it’s exaggerated. Maybe I live under a rock,” she says when I meet her in London. The Grammy saw her move to a bigger label, with a rare-for-jazz generous publicity budget. She recalls that early reactions to Chamber Music Society were not exactly propitious. “The label thought I was crazy, thought it sounded avant-garde ... I hope there was no nefarious plot.”

In April, she releases Radio Music Society and takes a new 12-piece band on the road. As before, there are bittersweet lines and shifting rhythms, light-toned vocals and lyrics that span the humdrum and socially engaged. But here the similarities end. The first album wove strings into these Spalding trademarks, whereas the new album supports them with boisterous brass and a clutch of guests.

Any idea that winning the Grammy had influenced this change in musical direction gets short shrift. The two CDs were originally conceived as a double-album project but proved impossible to organise simultaneously. “I wanted to organise all this music I had fully developed, but hadn’t recorded, into families,” she says, explaining that Chamber Music Society would wrap up the more intimate and interpretive songs; Radio Music Society would be extrovert and feature horns.

In any case I wouldn’t fancy the chances of anybody trying to impose a commercial path on Spalding. “People that work with me really like working with me and wouldn’t want to do anything that made me want to stop working with them,” she says. “And that sort of behaviour would immediately make me want to seek other options.”

Spalding’s first album was co-produced by arranger/producer Gil Goldstein. But the second album is more piecemeal, with help coming from many quarters. She called on “a lot of my friends, Wayne [Shorter] and Quincy [Jones] and Prince”, she says. “I couldn’t do it by myself, it’s not how great music is made.”

Many of these friends seem to have accrued from a busy professional life, although she prefers to say they allowed her to be in their space. She met drummer Jack De Johnette in Herbie Hancock’s dressing room. “We started talking about everything under the sun, about music and singing songs and we kept in touch and kept developing and playing music.” Vocalist Gretchen Parlato and guitarist Lionel Loueke shared a bill with Spalding a few years back; saxophonist Joe Lovano was a former employer, for whose quintet Us Five she brilliantly bound together the polyrhythmic throb of two powerful drummers.

A project with so many guests and stylistic contrasts could have ended up sounding bitty but, in fact, it feels all of a piece. At one moment Lovano is cruising over the supple stabs of R&B, the next closely harmonised vocals conjure Manhattan Transfer. Blousy big-band blues are followed by the avant-funk of Shorter’s “Endangered Species”; there are Latin inflections and sombre church-toned organ.

Now she is looking forward to developing the music live. “I like what happens after months of playing the same music,” she says. “The unknown starts to happen. That’s the stuff I like, that’s the meat I like to dig into.”

Spalding’s combination of steel and warmth reflects her single-parent upbringing in Portland, Oregon. As she describes it, her childhood was a mix of harsh exteriors, strong communities and a loving and creative home life. Her part of town suffered from “gang violence, illicit drug dealing and prostitution ... things that can and do happen anywhere.” But the network of neighbourhood arts was strong and her mother encouraged her involvement.

By the time Spalding was five, she was rehearsing the violin every week with the Oregon Chamber Music Society Workshop. Ten years later she was the society’s concertmaster and being paid $100 to lead the section rehearsals. At 14 she was introduced to bass and a passion for jazz followed swiftly. Her early influences are clearly stated: Slam Stewart for lyricism, Scott LaFaro for agility and Leroy Vinegar for soul.

Two years later, when she joined her first band, they asked if she could also sing. Yes, she blithely replied, although she had never done so in public. Never done with learning, Spalding is currently working with a tutor to study the voice “as a machine, an instrument, the technical aspects”.

At 19, she entered Boston’s Berklee College of Music, and three years later became one of its youngest ever faculty members. She taught there for three years before going on the road full time.

Women in jazz remain a rarity, though she’s not sure if gender has been an issue in her musical development. “I don’t know what it’s like to be a man playing this music. Maybe certain dynamics are unique between me and other people because I’m a woman, or it could be because of my personality,” she says. She feels less conscious of gender than her predecessors. “They got the big rocks out of the way and I’m just turning over the pebbles and shuffling my way along.”

An awareness of roots, issues and communities features strongly in her personal-thoughts lyrics, and even love songs voice concerns over personal space. And she likes the idea that songs can help a good cause. “If you can pack something on to a record that might sell, then that can generate income for organisations that do good work, so why not?”

But with Spalding, it all comes down to music and the musicians who make it. “I don’t like the competitive aspect of what the Grammys brings out, the way it’s presented,” she says. “The natural way of artists is to interact, collaborate and share and play and talk.”

‘Radio Music Society’ will be released in the UK on April 2; Spalding will appear in London at Koko on May 28

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