The 'It' girl of jazz

At age 25, it might feel like a bit too much pressure to be considered the “future of jazz,” but Esperanza Spalding, who is part of the Sunday lineup at this weekend’s Playboy Jazz Festival, carries herself with the kind of grace and poise that belies her years.

The native Oregonian (she’s from Portland) is back by popular demand, making a return engagement that’s rare for the program. Darlene Chan, who has produced the festival since its inception 32 years ago, says Spalding made quite an impression on the Playboy brass last year.

“She happened to be on when (Hugh) Hefner, who only comes on Saturday, was there,” recalls Chan. “And all the executives at Playboy were just knocked out by her. She’s the ‘it’ girl in jazz right now.”

Unless you’re one of a handful of contemporary jazz acts that includes Harry Connick, Jr., Michael Buble or Diana Krall, chances are you’ll sell only a fraction of the LPs that frequently turn up in the comprehensive album charts. But Spalding’s sophomore effort, “Esperanza,” finished in the top five of Billboard’s year-end Contemporary Jazz Artists chart for 2009. And it’s her blend of traditional jazz influences (she plays upright acoustic bass), lilting, untrained singing voice, natural songwriting ability and her youthful sex appeal that has the jazz world singing her praises.

“She’s great for jazz because she’s a great personality,” says Chan. “And it’s great to have a woman playing, too.”

Spalding sings in Portuguese on two of the tracks on “Esperanza”: “Ponta de Areia,” co-written by Milton Nascimento, and “Samba em Preludio,” written by the late Baden Powell, who, like Nascimento, is considered one of the great Brazilian guitarists of the 20th Century.

It was at the Berklee College of Music that Spalding was first exposed to the sounds of Brazil. “When I discovered Milton Nascimento,” says Spalding, “he became a huge source of inspiration on may levels. His lyric writing is very powerful and very poetic — just a very brave musician. He does whatever he feels and whatever he hears, and makes that work.”

This will actually be Spalding’s third appearance at the Playboy fest, since she played one year as a sideman with trumpeter Christian Scott before her debut last year as a leader. “They have more real jazz performers than a lot of other (jazz fests),” she says of Playboy, “really exceptional practitioners of this music. So on that level, the standards are very high — among the highest.”

With more and more so-called jazz fests appealing to the widest common denominator by booking pop and R&B acts, Playboy has managed to stick closer to its original mandate than most.

“Look, we’re trying to do business, too, so there are some acts that have crossover appeal,” admits Chan, “but our rule is if (the acts) are crossover they still have to have their roots in jazz, or have something to do with jazz.”

Ticket sales are down about 10-15% from last year, which Chan attributes to the economy and, as she says, “those darn Lakers,” who are scheduled to play Game 5 of their championship series with the Boston Celtics on Sunday. As a result, while Saturday is practically sold out, Sunday is at around 75-80% capacity. Chan feels the event could pick up another 10% from door sales depending on the weather and the outcome of Game 4.

Among the fest’s headliners this year are some of the usual suspects, including Chick Corea, Marcus Miller, Bubby Hutcherson and such crowd pleasers as George Benson and the Manhattan Transfer.

But an unusual percentage of this year’s acts are first timers at the fest, including Salif Keita from Mali, a cappela group Naturally Seven, ukelele player Jake Shimabukuro, Cuba’s Tiempo Libre, the 45-piece Jazz Mafia’s Brass Bows and Beats ensemble, jazz vocalist Kurt Elling, and two groups from the Big Easy: Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue and Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.

And while the labels seem flummoxed by an ever more fragmented marketplace that prefers to cherry-pick its music track by track, Spalding sees the good and the bad in terms of the state of jazz:

“There are people completely invested in making sure the music is performed and brought from every corner of the earth to be shared and heard and experienced,” says Spalding. “And right here at home at its birth place there are people who grow up today who never hear (jazz), are never exposed to it, don’t understand its historical or artistic significance, and maybe they never will.”

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