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At Yoshi’s, beauty and the bass

By Anthony Torres

Esperanza means hope in Spanish. After seeing bassist, vocalist and composer Esperanza Spalding — who comes to Yoshi’s this month on October 14 and 15 — one cannot help but be hopeful for the future of women in jazz. Spalding is blessed with the ability to fuse instrumental licks and a multilingual voice through the vehicle of a gorgeous beauty. It makes this 23-year-old prodigy a joy to behold.

Born in 1984 and raised in Portland, Oregon, she grew up in a single-parent economically disadvantaged home. Due to a lengthy illness as a child, she was home-schooled for a significant portion of her elementary school years. Of traditional schooling, she says, “It was just hard for me to fit into a setting where I was expected to sit in a room and swallow everything that was being fed to me.”

After seeing classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma perform on an episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” she realized, “I wanted to do something musical. It was definitely the thing that hipped me to the whole idea of music as a creative pursuit.”

In a year’s time, she taught herself to play the violin well enough to land a spot in the Chamber Music Society of Oregon. She stayed with the group for a decade. By age 15, she was elevated to a concertmaster position, also discovering the bass and an expanded range of musical possibilities. Soon after, she was playing blues, funk, hip-hop and a variety of other styles on the local club circuit.

At 16, Spalding left high school. Armed with her GED and a generous scholarship, she enrolled in the music program at Portland State University. “I was definitely the youngest bass player in the program,” she says. “I was 16, and I had been playing the bass for about a year and a half. Most of the cats in the program already had at least eight years of training under their belts, and I was trying to play in these orchestras and do these Bach cello suites. It wasn’t really flying.”

So she left. She pulled together some money, auditioned at Berklee College of Music and immediately won a scholarship. In three years of accelerated study, she not only earned a B.M. degree, but also signed on as an instructor in 2005 at the age of 20 — the youngest faculty member in the history of the college.

Spalding’s music is a smooth hip blend of pop, jazz and Brazilian influences that create an imaginative and sweetly distinct sound made even more remarkable because she plays the bass while singing like a beautiful bird. “Some outside forces have blessed me with creative talents,” she says. “I want to make great music, but I also want to use that talent to lift people up, and maybe show them some degree of hope where there might not be any in their lives. My name means ‘hope’ in Spanish, and it’s a name I want to live up to.”