When the winner of the Best New Artist category was announced at this year’s Grammy Awards, some music-industry executives were left reaching for Google. Who was this sumptuously Afro-ed jazz musician named Esperanza Spalding who bested heavy favorites Drake and Justin Bieber? Jazz devotees and supporters of quality music around the globe, however, applauded the selection of the 27-year-old bandleader as a win for creativity and craftsmanship, both of which Spalding has in spades.
An anomaly even in the jazz world, Spalding plays the upright and electric bass, violin, oboe, and clarinet; sings, in three languages; and composes and produces. With her current album, Chamber Music Society, becoming a number-one Billboard jazz recording that also enjoyed a post-Grammy sales boost, she is quick to shrug off her relative anonymity. “If your fans are that adamant and supportive of you, your career is probably going to be just fine,” says Spalding, the first jazz musician to win Best New Artist.
Spalding’s career certainly looks primed to continue its upward trajectory. She is working on her third album, Radio Music Society, due out next year, and touring around the world with saxophonist Joe Lovano. She has performed for the Obamas, both at the White House and at the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway—the only time jazz has usurped the traditional classical music. And she has been hailed as a musical savior ever since her acclaimed 2008 self-titled debut. But Spalding does not subscribe to the stereotypes of a typical jazz purist. In fact, she has her detractors, who criticize her work for its fusion-based sound. Undeterred, her upcoming album features a collaboration with hip-hop artist Q-Tip, formerly of A Tribe Called Quest, a group well known for its own mix of hip-hop and jazz stylings.
“Sometimes when I am working on a piece of music, it is strictly for the joy of creating. I have no end in mind, no fans, no performance space... There are no lyrics yet, no title,” Spalding says. “You feel like you are the conduit for this idea, and you are using your skills to breathe life into it and to keep it evolving. Other times you imagine a goal. You want to have this sound or do this kind of performance for people. Little by little, you piece together all the necessary elements to realize that.”