Growing up in Portland, Oregon, Esperanza Spalding says she got the notion to make music her life’s work at the age of four. This, following a television episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood in which the cellist Yo-Yo Ma was a guest performer. Thus inspired, Spalding spent the next year teaching herself to play the violin. By the age of five, she had skills enough to land a seat in the all-age Chamber Music Society of Oregon. For the next decade, Spalding would soldier on in classical music, switching at one point to acoustic bass.
“I came into jazz really late,” she says by phone from Austin, Texas. “I started studying when I was 15 or 16. The thing that first caught my ear was [Miles Davis’s] Kind of Blue. I think that’s true for a lot of people.” Of the Miles experience, she says, “That’s the first time I thought, Damn, that’s listening music.”
The result of all that is that today, at 24, Esperanza Spalding fronts a jazz quartet. In May of last year she released her debut CD, a self-titled collection of jazz covers and original songs that conjures the Flora Purim and Chick Corea fusion jazz of the ’70s. After giving a listen, I tell her I would change the headline of her publicity release from bassist/vocalist/composer to vocalist/composer/bassist. Lead with the bassist thing, I say, and one expects big bass pyrotechnics, none of which appear on the CD.
“Most people who aren’t avid jazz fans don’t really enjoy long bass solos,” she agrees. In fact, Esperanza is a jazz singer’s CD. Sexy in an unselfconscious way, Spalding’s delivery is a champagne balloon ride through two octaves and three languages. “I definitely felt that — for what I was trying to do with the music — I could reach the people that I wanted to reach more easily through the voice.”
The Clayton Brothers Quintet also performs.
ESPERANZA SPALDING: Birch North Park Theatre, “Jazz 88.3 at the Birch,” Sunday, September 13, 7 p.m. $23. 619-388-3037.