Music News & Reviews

October 4, 2012

Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding to play at Orpheum

Esperanza Spalding isn’t plotting to take over the music world. Really.

Esperanza Spalding isn’t plotting to take over the music world. Really.

Sure, she’s won a Grammy for best new artist, modeled fashion for Oprah Winfrey and been applauded by President Obama — not your usual resume for a jazz musician.

She also named her latest CD “Radio Music Society.” But the 27-year-old emits a laugh as ethereal as her singing voice when asked if the CD and accompanying videos are part of a plan to put jazz back in the mainstream.

“Don’t give away my secret,” Spalding said. “The whole point is you don’t have to know any of that. We just want young people to get the record, watch the movies and enjoy the music. We know there’s so much joy to be received from it.”

The bassist/singer/composer brings her Radio Music Society World Tour to Wichita on Wednesday for a show at the Orpheum Theatre.

It’s Spalding’s second appearance here. The first time, a year ago this month, she came to back up one of her mentors, saxophonist Joe Lovano, at Abode Venue. Considering she had won the 2011 Grammy for best new artist in any category — a first for a jazz musician — her willingness to play second fiddle (or rather bass) to Lovano says plenty about her respect for traditional jazz.

But fans who caught that show will see a different kind of performance at the Orpheum.

Spalding’s Radio Music Society band consists of 12 musicians, half of them horn players, with a sound influenced by R&B and soul. Spalding says she enjoys both roles — supporting player and band leader — although the latter definitely carries more pressure.

“I’m just thinking about what’s going to happen next and what’s going on,” she said of leading Radio Music Society. “I play with people I know well and trust. I trust that when I describe something I’m looking for musically, they’re going to do their absolute best to give me that.”

Spalding’s story is that of a prodigy with seemingly inexhaustible energy and drive.

Raised by a single mom in Portland, Ore., she was home-schooled as a child because of a lengthy illness but discovered a passion for music after seeing cellist Yo-Yo Ma perform on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” She taught herself to play violin and won a spot in The Chamber Music Society of Oregon community orchestra, eventually becoming its concertmaster.

Spalding took up the bass and started playing blues, funk and anything else she could find in Portland’s music scene. She left high school at 16 with a GED and enrolled in Portland State University’s music program. After transferring to Boston’s renowned Berklee College of Music, she earned a degree, played with a long list of jazz greats and joined the school’s faculty — all by the age of 20.

She hasn’t slowed down since. In addition to Radio Music Society, she heads a separate group called the Chamber Music Society (also the name of her 2010 CD) that includes a string trio and incorporates classical music influences.

Spalding didn’t claim to remember her first Wichita gig but figured it must have been “positive” since she has the same booking agent as Lovano. In a few weeks, her tour takes her to Europe and Asia.

Amid the whirl of appearances at the White House and on late-night TV shows, Spalding somehow finds time for pursuits other than music. Her website touts her involvement in the Innocence Project, which seeks to exonerate wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing; and sustainable fashion, examples of which she wears at every show. She talks about finding inspiration for the lyrics to a new song in a passage from a book by the late American anthropologist Loren Eiseley — not exactly what you find on everybody’s coffee table. For Spalding, it all plays back into being an artist.

“I would imagine it would be difficult not to be inspired by multiple sources — movies, or an exchange at the coffee shop. Part of an artist’s job is to extract things from the world and distill them in a way that the essence is more clearly received. That’s what we strive for, anyway.”

The eclectic influences carry over to music, as well. Spalding is a serial collaborator, playing with everybody from jazz icon Wayne Shorter to Americana guitarist Larry Campbell to comedian/banjoist Steve Martin.

“Jazz is not the only American art form,” she said. “There’s a lot of bluegrass and Americana music that is profoundly beautiful.”

The last piece of the puzzle is passion for craft, which Spalding appears to have in abundance. Asked what people can expect from a Radio Music Society show, she said, “We want to play our (posteriors) off, and we want to transmit something of value to those people who paid to spend an evening with us.”

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