Billboard’s Faces To Watch DVD series provides background information about burgeoning artists who are on the cusp of coming of age. The company’s DVD on singer/songwriter/upright bass player, Esperanza Spalding is an honest account of this young musician’s rise to become a bona-fide solo artist, told in her own words. Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, her mother played a pivotal role in guiding her towards a life in playing music.
Esperanza, which means "hope" in Spanish, recalls learning to play the violin at 5 years old, and playing the piano at home. Back then, playing music was a way for her to have fun and express her thoughts in music notes. Her mother would later enroll her in The Cultural Recreation Plan which is designed to give "poor, inner city black children" in Esperanza’s words, the opportunity to learn from seasoned jazz musicians who "scare you into playing." Their critiques are forthright and blunt, which Esperanza credits their honesty for shaping her up into becoming a professional musician.
It was while in school that she says she became stifled playing the violin and spotted a new upright bass in the corner of the music room. She picked it up and started playing it. Word spread around town about her playing, and while still in high school, she was invited to play with a group of local jazz musicians every Sunday. She conveys that they were a group of "60 year old guys" and glows that it was like "playing with such history," which you can see in her eyes that the experience was a big thrill for her.
After high school, she was matriculated in the music program at Portland State University to study classical music. While there, a professor recommended that she transfer to Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. She auditioned for Berklee and was given a scholarship on the spot to attend the college. To help pay for the additional expenses that come with relocating to Boston and living there, her friend suggested that they put together a benefit concert, which they did and the proceeds footed her bills to Boston.
She explains that she stayed with a family friend while in Boston, and during her first semester there, singer-songwriter Patti Austin held an audition for a bass player in her live band. Esperanza went on the audition and got the gig. The money that she earned on Austin’s tour would help pay for continued expenses at Berklee. After that, numerous musicians offered Esperanza gigs. She relates that these musicians figured if Patti Austin thought she was good, then she must be good. Esperanza insists that she does not want to obtain gigs for any other reason then for something that she can do, the music that she can perform.
Another turning point was when jazz musicians Gary Burton and Pat Metheny were producing a CD for Berklee, profiling select students from the college. Esperanza was chosen to play on the CD. After one recording session, she remembers Pat Metheny taking her to the side and asking her what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. She admitted to him that she wants to be more than just a jazz musician. She wants to make a bigger change. Maybe this is what he saw in her that made him confide to her, that she has an unmistakable X-factor.
Esperanza Spalding released her first solo album in 2006 entitled Junjo, and she is expected to release her second album, Esperanza on May 20, 2008. She tells that "Music is a way to incorporate all of the experiences in my life." But the way she plays the upright bass and sings, she seems to take audiences to places that she herself would like to go to, not necessarily places that she has been to. She writes about love, but she tells in a press release, "I had never experienced love before."
She describes that the bass is the meat and potatoes of the music, the foundation for a song, while the vocals are the top layer, delivering the message. She gets a thrill from living in these two tiers. She can write the messages and be the carrier for them. In her opinion, she has the best of both worlds in her music.