Recently, a friend challenged me to come up with a list of female musicians known for their musicianship rather than for their singing or songwriting capabilities. The catch? They had to be primarily known for whatever instrument they play and be a “household” name.
I spent several nights going about it in my head, not finding the answer in my pillow or in the deep darkness of my room. All I could come up with was Patti Sciaffa (not really a household name), Sheila E (sure, but only by her association with the beast of an entertainer that is Prince), Kim Deal (not really known for her skills, but rather for her I-don’t-give-a-shit-ness, and wail. Plus, not really a household name.) The rest were all primarily singers in one way or another. Until, ah, along came the thought of Esperanza Spalding. She just won a Grammy, and one of the big ones at that, which in my opinion makes her a household name instantaneously, and she is known, not only primarily for her playing, but also for being a bandleader, composer AND singer. Jackpot, right?
Ever since Herbie Hancock won Album of the Year at the 2008 Grammy Awards for his concept album, River: The Joni Letters, and Robert Plant & Allison Krauss earned the same award in 2009 for Raising Sand, the stage had been set for Esperanza Spalding.
Both records were questionable left-field choices that left many scratching their heads, but they were highly commendable picks, both for the substance and professionalism contained within each project and for the Academy’s courage in rewarding albums for musical integrity over popular appeal. So when Spalding took the highly desirable, and in many cases career-making, Best New Artist award in 2011, it should not have come as such a surprise.
To put it bluntly, Spalding is exactly the type of African-American artist that White America loves to adore (much like Beyoncé): unbelievably beautiful, classy, sophisticated and oh my, this one even plays bass! Not just any bass, mind you, but an upright bass. Like Ron Carter!
This is not a criticism. On the contrary – it’s really a great thing because she is all of those things, and on top of that, she is a crack of a musician.
The reality of it is that Esperanza Spalding*, only 26 years old, has everything going for her right now. She is in a way a darling of the 21st century’s amalgam of genres and styles (think Zooey Deschanel but without the annoying kitsch and intensive quirkiness). Jazz is slowly creeping its way back into the current social consciousness; it’s starting to be hip again (check out James Farm for an example of this), and Esperanza Spalding is as good as any to carry that flag back into old territory. Her music bounces in really sweet ways, she’s harmless, but it’s definitely not easy listening. Her music demands a serious appreciation for intricate and beautiful music. You don’t just skip through her songs.
On her latest album, Chamber Music Society, she re-imagines William Blake in her song “Little Fly,” and got Milton Nascimiento to guest on “Apple Blossoms.” She has also collaborated with The Roots. Hip, indeed. Could we have another Stan Getz in our near future? I don’t really know, but let her play on and she might one day make a bebop record that sells well.
*Further research led me to this video, which I now share. It will perhaps give you a better understanding of who and why she is and how she goes about her craft. It is an important insight into music making and soul shakin’: