When jazz bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding shockingly beat out teen idol Justin Bieber, Drake, Florence + the Machine and Mumford & Sons for best new artist at the Grammy Awards three weeks ago, a large chunk of America squinted at their TVs and said, "Who?"
The jazz community, however, has been aware of Spalding and her eclectic melange of jazz, soul, pop, funk, Brazilian music and world-beat idioms for several years.
Still basking in post-Grammy buzz, she's become an "it girl," whose crossover style, wispy vocals, dark-eyed beauty, five-story Afro and walking-on-sunshine vibe have merged into a charismatic package.
At 26, Spalding has become the rare contemporary jazz musician to have broken through the force field of popular culture. She has appeared on the David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel shows, been anointed a "woman on the rise" by Oprah Winfrey, performed at Barack Obama's Nobel Prize ceremony in Sweden and landed in the pages of the New Yorker.
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Her success has exacerbated familiar fault lines in the jazz community between purist and populist sensibilities. But labels don't make much sense when it comes to Spalding. The Duke Ellington maxim that there are only two kinds of music, good and bad, is a more viable prism, even as reasonable people might disagree on what kind she's making at any particular point.
She doesn't mind being at the center of a debate.
"It's good to have a dialogue about our field," said Spalding, speaking about 10 days after her Grammy win. She lives in Austin, Texas, but spoke from her native Portland, Ore., where she was visiting family.
"I think jazz is so deeply instilled in my blood that it is a really big part of my music. Some people would say my music is real jazz, and some people would say it's too diluted to be the real thing. But that's a good thing. At least people are listening and talking."
Spalding discovered her calling at age 4, after seeing cellist Yo-Yo Ma on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." She took up the violin and before long joined a community orchestra. Around age 14, she picked up the bass. She started playing blues, funk, jazz, hip-hop and pop and writing and singing her own songs.
She sped through studies at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, becoming an instructor at the school at age 20. She ended up in a small ensemble class led by veteran tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, one of the leading figures in jazz, with whom she still works and records.
"I've always been confident enough to use my voice openly and freely and trusting that I would hopefully know what to do with other people," she said. "Of course, I'm speaking of myself as a 19-year-old and I was probably missing 90 percent of what was going on. But at least there was enough openness that we could dance."
In the years since, she has filled in gaps in her musical education, familiarizing herself with landmarks of jazz history yet keeping her ears open and following her muse. "
Her own recordings are a potpourri of idioms, ideas, fusions. When she hits on all cylinders, like her up-tempo, 5/4 reinvention of the evergreen "Body and Soul" that she sings in Spanish, the effect is exhilarating. The version appears on "Esperanza" (Heads Up), the second of her three CDs as a leader.