Esperanza Spalding: The new face of jazz

Women's Impact Report: Songbirds

New breezes blowing through jazz usually come from those in their 20s, which means Esperanza Spalding, only 25, is right on schedule.

Since the release of her first high-profile album, “Esperanza,” in 2008, Spalding has emerged as a major figure from several angles. She is an attractive, charismatic woman in a genre overwhelmingly populated by males. Her ancestry defines the melting pot — African-American, Latino, Asian, Native American.

The bass is Spalding’s instrument —  not a common vehicle for a trailblazer. Her joyous singing, in both Portuguese and English, reaches out to a mainstream audience, and she writes and arranges most of her material. A true member of the iPod generation, her musical interests are omnivorous. One minute she muses about listening to new music from Q-Tip —  whom she plans to work with —  and the next, she talks about the horrible treatment Shostakovich received in the Soviet Union.

Spalding takes risks; rather than follow “Esperanza,” the top-selling album by a woman on Billboard’s contemporary jazz chart in 2009, with more of the same, her new recording, “Chamber Music Society,” dares to swerve in a classical-jazz direction. She has played three times for President Obama, including a Stevie Wonder tribute at the Library of Congress (“I was kind of intimidated playing Stevie Wonder songs in front of” Wonder, she admits).

Yet when asked what was the most significant thing that has happened to her over the past year, Spalding leaves no doubt: playing with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette and Terence Blanchard at Hancock’s 70th birthday concert in Hollywood Bowl in August. It was Hancock’s way of saying “welcome to the club,” putting a seal of approval on her emergence into the jazz spotlight. “What a treat to be that close to the people who were making music,” she says, “and to offer some notes.”

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