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Got Esperanza?: Bass phenom Esperanza Spalding has played the White House twice in the last six months.


Esperanza Spalding's star is rising fast. The bass-playing phenom, who's been to the White House twice in the last six months, plays two shows at Kuumbwa.

By Jaime Nabrynski

IN THE video footage, Esperanza Spalding walks confidently down the red-carpeted aisle in a sequined camisole and form-fitting skirt, her trademark afro an outsized halo. She takes her place at a standup bass on center stage and then, bathed in the spotlight, launches into a fresh, stripped-down rendering of "Overjoyed" marked as much by its expressiveness as by its economy. Four feet away, sitting in the front row, Barack and Michelle Obama take it in.

The tribute to Stevie Wonder hosted by the White House in February derailed the 24-year-old Spalding's first scheduled visit to Kuumbwa. Now--following a second White House appearance on May 12 at an evening of jazz and spoken word hosted by the Obamas--she makes it up to her Santa Cruz fans in two shows on June 22.

They're in for a treat. Esperanza Spalding's singing and bass playing fluctuate between the leisurely tempos of smoother jazz rhythms and a faster, swing-driven pace. She fuses jazz, blues and funk with Brazilian and Afro-Cuban influences. With her voice as a second instrument, she improvises melodies, scatting with the ease of an Ella Fitzgerald or a Sarah Vaughn. Recognizing the women who came before her, Spalding downplays the commotion around being a young woman in jazz.

"In a couple more decades, jazz will credit women just as it does men," she says. "I'm aware that I'm at the tail end of the initial trailblazers that made it possible for me to do my thing."

Spalding was raised in Portland, Ore., by a single mother. During grade school, she endured an extensive illness that resulted in her being home schooled on and off, a blessing in disguise. She bounced around different schools, and while at home she spent the extra time teaching herself to play the violin. Her talent blossomed quickly; at the age of 15, she was made concertmaster of the Chamber Music Society of Oregon.

Violin wasn't her only passion. At 14, Spalding happened to pick up a standing bass during music class at a high school she attended for a short while. When a teacher found her experimenting, she was given a single bass line to practice, and her love of the instrument took off from there. At 16 she earned her GED and through a scholarship was able to attend Portland State University to study music, focusing on the bass. But she wasn't happy, and when a teacher suggested she apply to Berklee School of Music, she followed up. Since she lacked the funds to make it across the country, her friends held a benefit concert, earning Spalding the money to attend the school. After graduating, Spalding became, at age 20, the youngest faculty member in the college's history.

Though she's currently too busy performing to continue her stint as an instructor, Spalding says it was this time with her students that pushed her to remaster her own musical understanding, forcing her to "instinctively go back and delve into it again." In May 2008 Spalding produced her first solo album, Esperanza, a culmination of her vocal, instrumental and compositional talents.

As for her future, Spalding expects "incredible things." She's interested in the continuing evolution of jazz and has a specific goal in mind.

"I want to help music as an art reach that blend of cerebral, creative freedom ... with accessibility and the knowledge of how to present it," she says.

ESPERANZA SPALDING performs Monday, June 22, at 7 and 9pm at Kuumbwa, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25 advance/ $28 door; 831.427.2227.

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