Six years ago Esperanza Spalding pulled off a stunning upset when she beat Justin Bieber, Mumford and Sons, Drake, and Florence & the Machine to win the Grammy for Best New Artist.Usually the honor goes to a commercially successful, mainstream pop musician. This time, for the first time ever, it went to a jazz artist. Many in the audience had never heard of her.
But jazz is only a thread in the uncommon fabric of Spalding’s music. Her most recent album,
“Emily’s D+Evolution,” co-produced by David Bowie’s longtime collaborator Tony Visconti, combined funk, math rock, pop and soul.
Spalding, 32, was born and raised in Portland, Ore., and, as the story goes, took to music after seeing Yo Yo Ma perform on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” She’s opened for Prince, performed for President Barack Obama and amassed more Grammys since her upset. Saturday, with her trio, she’ll headline the University of Idaho Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival. Inland 360 caught up with her by phone in Miami, Fla., where she’d just landed to play at the recent GroundUP Music Festival.
360: How does jazz figure into your work?
ES: I don’t do much figuring about it. I think it’s like a language that you can use according to your personality and sonic, aesthetic tastes and preferences for performance styles. So, I suppose it’s a language I speak, a language I study. Beyond that, when it comes time for me to write or play … I just play what I want to hear. I don’t always achieve it. I just try to do that.
360: On the eve of the recent presidential election you performed at the Peace Ball at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The ball started in 2009 as a celebration of President Barack Obama’s election. This year was titled “Peace Ball: Voices of Hope and Resistance.” What was that experience like?
ES: It was so dense with people on the main event floor that I didn’t really mingle and hang but I watched most of the speeches and performances from a room with (Angela) Davis … and other glorious beings who were sort of meandering in and out.
What I wanted to bring to that event was a musical offering and encouragement that we can build monumental contributions to future generations, a monument that withstands the test of time with the music we make. … Violence, hate and rejection, it only fosters violence, hate and rejection. What’s the alternative to that? Peace. … A lot of people from around the country, around the world, came to convene and address each other – what do we do, how do we foster peace? That’s a beautiful idea, the forming of that kind of relationship, that kind of alliance.
360: How do you think these challenging times will make their way into your work?
ES: Part of our job (as artists) is to breathe in what’s happening around us and breathe it out as art and beauty.
360: When you perform at the UI jazz festival you’ll be playing for a lot of young people. You’ve been referred to as a child prodigy but few have that start. What advice might you have for young people about forging forward in music?
ES: I think that’s an overstatement. That description is overrated. It actually doesn’t matter. (Those born with) great athletic prowess naturally can run faster than any other kids with no training, so what. Kids who train, they’re going to get faster. It‘s really just a matter of what you do with your potential. … There’s no shortcut. You still have to do the work.
If You Go
What: 50th annual Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival
When: Thursday, Feb. 23 through Saturday, Feb. 25
-4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Young Artist’s Winners Concert
-7:30 to 10 p.m. Evening concerts
Where: ASUI-Kibbie Activity Center, Moscow
Cost: $15-$45. Tickets: (208) 885-7212, www.uidaho.edu/class/jazzfest
The evening concert showcases the University of Idaho Jazz Choir I and II and Jazz Band I with
Grammy nominees Claudio Roditi and Rene Marie. A trumpet and flugelhorn player, Roditi has been on the jazz scene since the 1970s and is
known for his combination of post bop with Brazilian elements. As a vocalist and composer, Marie uses elements of folk, R&B, classical and country.
“The Hampton-Goodman Tribute” honors the band in which Lionel Hampton got his start, the Benny Goodman Quartet. Musicians will present traditional and contemporary versions of the quartet’s music. The night also features the critically acclaimed vocal group New York Voices. The tribute features Stefon Harris on vibraphone, Anat Cohen on clarinet, Joe Doubleday on vibraphone and Felix Peikli on clarinet.
The Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival Big Band opens the finale concert with Julia Keefe and Claudio Roditi. Keefe, a Nez Perce tribal member, won
Outstanding Vocalist as a student in 2007. She’s now a professional musician living in Spokane. Esperanza Spalding will headline the night.