Photo by Holly Andres
A four-time Grammy Award-winner, humanitarian activist and educator, Esperanza Spalding has, in the past decade of her illustrious career, continually and brilliantly married genres, pushed boundaries and created groundbreaking work. By anyone’s measure, Spalding’s accomplishments at 32 years of age have already eclipsed those of artists half a century older, yet it’s blatantly obvious that her artistic journey is a lifelong one that we’ve just begun to collectively comprehend.
Spalding is, as a musician, composer, vocalist and lyricist, expansive, iterative, shape-shifting, open and progressively innovative. A voracious and magnetic performer, she is attentively studious towards what the process of playing live—whether sharing a stage with her own revolving ensembles, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Janelle Monae or Prince—presents to the structure of a song. That channeled energy runs through her recorded catalog of seven collaborative and six solo albums.
On Spalding’s most recent project, Exposure, she set out to create an album from start to finish in 77 hours, while streaming the whole creative process live on Facebook. This demanding feat of musicianship was an artistic marathon that yielded not just a 10-song album, but a community of sleepless fans who watched every second.
Her groundbreaking livestream garnered 1.4 million views, over 4 million minutes viewed, and nearly 400,000 reactions, comments and shares along the way. Before Exposure ended, all 7,777 copies of the album (priced at $50) had sold out.
Also leading up to that event, Spalding and Frank Gehry spent an hour jamming together on Facebook Live; Spalding on her bass, Frank with his pencil. Their spontaneous creations were auctioned off via Charitybuzz with all proceeds going towards Bienestar, an Oregon-based non-profit that provides affordable housing to thousands of low-income Oregonians. Exposure was a logical next step for this visionary artist. In March 2016, she had released Emily’s D+Evolution (Concord), a daring tapestry of music, vibrant imagery, performance art and stage design. Co-produced by Spalding and Tony Visconti (David Bowie), the album was an electrifying take on the power trio, adorned with rich vocal arrangements and touches of synthesizer.
“Spalding has made her mark not just as a virtuoso jazz bassist or an effortlessly nimble singer but as an exotic hybrid of the two. The very nature of her talent is exceptional.”The New York Times
Emily’s D+Evolution was deemed “her most fascinating album yet” by the LA Times, led to performances on Jimmy Kimmel Live and The Late Show, fashion spreads in Vogue and Nylon and inclusion on many “Best of 2016” lists including The New York Times, NPR, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Wall Street Journal, Spin, Complex and Time magazine.
After Emily’s D+Evolution, she debuted “Virgin Writes,” a lyrical, Butoh staging of the ancient Greek mythological story of Iphigenia (in collaboration with Yuka C. Honda and Vangeline). Her “Esperanza Spalding Selects” display at the Cooper Hewitt Museum is on exhibit now through January 2018. She performed at Carnegie Hall with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra and NY02 – a Carnegie Hall program for young instrumentalists ages 14-17. She also performed at the alternative Inauguration Peace Ball in January in Washington, D.C.
As The New York Times mentions in their 2012 post-Best New Artist Grammy profile, Spalding “has made her mark not just as a virtuoso jazz bassist or an effortlessly nimble singer but as an exotic hybrid of the two. The very nature of her talent is exceptional.” That same year’s release, Radio Music Society, debuted on the Billboard Top 10; The Guardian praised its “torchy swaggers.” 2010’s Chamber Music Society was infused with what NPR dubbed “an ineffable brightness.” Preceding that was her eponymous Esperanza album, performed in English, Spanish and Portuguese. Spalding’s 2006 debut, JUNJO, was called “a stunningly sophisticated yet playful set of acoustic trio jazz: rubbery bass, piano, drums and sexy Latin melodies harking back to the ‘70s Brazilian jazz of Flora Purim” by Rolling Stone—but 2006 is far from where Spalding’s life in music began.
Following an inspirational episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that featured Yo Yo Ma, Spalding pursued study of her first instrument, the violin, at a time when most children her age were just learning to read. At age five, she was playing with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon in her hometown of Portland. By the time she exited the group at 15 as a concertmaster, she was composing and playing acoustic bass professionally with local bands. The latter became the instrument most central to her work: she joined her first band as a bassist and vocalist, Noise for Pretend, the same year she left the Chamber Music Society of Oregon. Following the group’s run, Spalding became one of the youngest bassists at Portland State University. When that wasn’t ultimately a fit, she moved to and graduated from Berklee College of Music. Upon graduation at age 20, Spalding became the prestigious school’s youngest-ever instructor.
Spalding was the laureate-invited singer and bassist at the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony and subsequent concert, when President Barack Obama won the Peace Prize in 2009. In addition to her Grammys, she has been the recipient of such other prestigious awards as the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Jazz Artist, Boston Music Award for Jazz Artist of the Year, Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award for the Performing Arts, Soul Train Music Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Artist/Group, Frida Kahlo Award for Innovative Creativity, and ASCAP Foundation Jazz Vanguard Award.
In July 2017, Spalding was appointed Professor of the Practice of Music at Harvard University, where she will teach a range of courses in songwriting, arranging, improvisation and performance, while also bringing her commitment to music as a voice for social justice.
Through her groundbreaking work, she is still teaching those who listen.