Back in the 20th century, many young jazz musicians were raised and/or educated to consider the bulk of pop music to be beneath their chosen genre.
Most of the young lions of the ’50s and ’60s were fans of jazz and classical music, and everything else was simple pop music. Even legends and feted jazz mavericks such as Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock have been quoted as saying that when they were young up-and-coming musicians, they had no use for mainstream popular music.
Although jazz luminaries such as Wynton Marsalis still treat much of pop music as a lower form of art, there has been a not-so-quiet sea change among the genre’s current generation. The titans — Davis, Hancock, John Coltrane and others — are still placed on pedestals and studied by youngsters, but many were also raised on pop music and have places on their pedestals for pop legends like Prince, Michael Jackson and Billy Joel.
Recent R&B Grammy-winning jazz pianist Robert Glaspar counts Joel’s ballad And So It Goes among his favorite songs. L.A.-based bassist/singer/songwriter Thundercat’s left-of-center R&B is heavily infused with jazz elements, and then there’s singer/songwriter/bassist Esperanza Spalding, who will be performing at the Palace Theatre at PlayhouseSquare on Sunday.
Spalding is a jazz marketer’s dream client. The 28-year-old Portland native has a great look: long, lean, and easy on the eyes, racially ambiguous (she has African-American, Welsh, Latin, and Native American ancestry) with her signature mushroom-cloud afro. Onstage and in interviews she exudes a laid-back, warm and optimistic earth-mother vibe.
But best of all, Spalding is an undeniably talented bass player, singer and composer whose four-album catalog as a bandleader is a heady but easily digestible mélange of jazz, classical, R&B and pop elements, all brought together by her seemingly boundless musical and personal enthusiasm.
The only jazz musician to ever win a best new artist Grammy (2011), Spalding grew up in Portland with her single mother and at the age of 4, after seeing Yo-Yo Ma perform on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, decided that music was her path. Spalding picked up the violin, taught herself to play it and was soon a member of the Chamber Music Society of Oregon; at age 15 she was a concertmaster. She then discovered the upright bass, which she described to Premier Guitar in April of last year as “waking up and realizing you’re in love with a co-worker.”
As a teen, she joined funk/blues/hip-hop band Noise For Pretend, and at 15 got her GED and began her schooling at Portland State University where she was the youngest player in the room. She went on to the Berklee College of Music, where in 2005 her prodigious talent garnered her a gig as an instructor at the tender age of 20.
During that time Spalding did what all young jazz musicians must do to grow, taking advantage of opportunities to play with veterans including saxophonist Donald Harrison and Pat Metheny, in the band of singer Patti Austin for three years, and as a member of respected Cleveland saxophonist Joe Lovano’s experimental US Five band, with whom she still performs.
Her debut Junjo was released in 2006, but she considers that a trio session with pianist Aruán Ortiz and drummer Francisco Mela. Her second album, Esperanza, recorded after she signed with the Cleveland-based Heads Up jazz label, elevated her to “up-and-coming” star status. It spent 70 weeks on the Billboard’s contemporary jazz chart and garnered her invitations to perform at the White House and the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.
The album contains all the elements that make Spalding so interesting. Her acoustic and fretless electric bass playing recalls influences such as the boundless inventiveness of Scott LaFaro and the rhythmic melodicism of Jaco Pastorius. Her singing voice is a high, clear, lilting soprano that no matter the song’s subject always sounds optimistic and lively, while her lyrics and melodies sung in English, Portuguese and Spanish skip and prance over her often deceptively complex backing.
Chamber Music Society showed her sophisticated, classical side, melding lively string trio arrangements with blues, neo-soul and jazz and her originals. Radio Music Society, released last year, presents the funkier, relatively poppier side of the more erudite Chamber Music Society. An interesting array of guest artists — Lovano, drummers Jack DeJohnette and Billy Hart, hip-hop legend Q-Tip, and singer/songwriters Algebra Blessett and Lalah Hathaway — join Spalding, who wrote or co-wrote 11 of the album’s baker’s dozen tracks. It won a 2013 Grammy for best jazz vocal album, and best instrumental arrangement accompanying vocalist(s) for the track City of Roses.
Musically, Radio Music Society goes down easy and although some of her lyrics touch on serious issues, she never devolves into heavy-handed proselytizing. The opening Radio Song slinks along on sexy, slippery bass lines and some tasty rock guitar, while the funky R&B-flavored Crowned & Kissed takes on the special people in everyone’s lives. On the sparse, short ballad Land of the Free, which features only her voice and gospel-style organ, Spalding takes on the case of Cornelius Dupree, who spent 30 years in prison before being freed based on DNA evidence.
The album’s lead single Black Gold is a duet with Blessett, written about African-Americans’ pre-colonial history and intended to uplift young men. She devotes the ethereal, classical-infused ballad Vague Suspicions to the callous way people react to news accounts of faceless “civilian casualties” of war and conflicts.
Spalding also pays tributes to her influences, covering the Stevie Wonder and Susaye Brown Greene song I Can’t Help It, made famous on Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall, and a version of saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s Endangered Species, about environmental conservation.
As with many jazz musicians of her generation, Spalding, who is touring with an 11-piece band able to switch from classical to jazz to pop within a few bars, wants to help jazz shake off its stodgy, tailored suit and evening gown stereotype and bring more pop listeners to the realm. And with her easily marketable look, inviting sound, considerable talents, and restless musical imagination that has made her a critical and commercial darling, Spalding appears poised to continue her rise into the mainstream and perhaps take the music she loves with her.