News Column

Esperanza Spalding Uses Grammy Fame as a Way to Make Her Music

April 13, 2012

Jeff Miers

One might reasonably refer to it as the "Best New Artist" curse. Win that Grammy, and you'll receive a mixed blessing. Sure, the publicity attendant to the award is bountiful, but remember, Milli Vanilli won the thing, too. And we all know what happened to them.

At the very least, you'll have to answer an endless stream of questions from the press that follow a script that runs something like, "So, how did winning the Best New Artist Grammy affect your life"?

Esperanza Spalding took the Grammy in that category in 2011, in the process upsetting Justin Bieber and his fans, and achieving the unthinkable: on the strength of an uncompromising recording that successfully sought to blend jazz and classical music, Spalding managed to move ambitious, heady music into the mainstream.

Not surprisingly, during a conference call interview with journalists from around the country last week, Spalding was faced with the dreaded Grammy question right out of the gate. Her response was telling. She seemed simultaneously exasperated -- "I bet you, like, 12 other people are going to ask that kind of question," she responded --and humbly grateful for the attention.

"Yeah. I mean I really -- I wonder -- maybe that's because of, like, a pattern, right, and maybe because you don't know me, and maybe that's like a question that you're supposed to ask," Spalding said. "But, you know, I would think all of the publicity or spotlight is a really wonderful thing for the music. I mean really, actually, directly -- because, you know, it gives us more opportunities to play and be seen and heard. And that means hopefully more people come to the shows or might buy the record, so that means we get the support to do what we do, you know.

"And of course, what we do is make music. You know ... an album or a concert is ... a sharing of where an artist is at. Do you know what I mean? And I mean that's sort of -- it's in your control in terms of how much work you put in. But, you know, all I can do is what I hear, feel or dream. So that's what I do. You know? And sometimes people won't like it."

Holy ambivalence, Batman!

Spalding, who arrives at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday to perform at the University at Buffalo's Center for Arts, is clearly wrestling with the effects of the whole Grammy thing. But guess what? That's exactly what she should be doing. The fact that all of this attention is making her uncomfortable bodes incredibly well for Spalding's future. It also speaks with far more force than a mantelpiece stuffed with Grammys ever could about this vibrant young artist's focus -- it's very squarely on the music.

Just prior to this conference call, Spalding's fourth album, "Radio Music Society," debuted in the Billboard Top 10 -- an expected occurrence, given the Grammy and all the press hubbub. Reviews of the album have been somewhat cautious -- it is, after all, not a rehashing of the jazz-classical marriage that endeared "Chamber Music Society" to so many, but rather, a bold marriage of soul, R&B, pop, funk and jazz.

Spalding plays electric bass on much of the record, as opposed to the acoustic upright she handled throughout "Chamber Music Society." The music demands to be listened to and felt, not merely playing in the background during a cocktail party. It bubbles with the newfound joy of hearing a great song blast from a boom-box through an open window on a sunny day, as one walks down the street deeply inhaling the air of possibility. As such, it's redolent of a time that is now part of the past -- the 1970s, one might resonably surmise, back when you might hear a killer Stevie Wonder track on the radio, and not find its marriage of jazz harmony, classical motifs, funk, and R&B at all anomalous.

"And sometimes people won't like it," Spalding said, and if this sounds defensive on her part, consider the words that precede this declaration. "What we do is make music... all I can do is what I hear, feel, dream." Between the lines, you can all but read the implication -- "Leave me alone and let me make my music."

This makes me love Spalding even more. She is abundantly talented as bassist, singer and composer, something we've known for a long time, long before the Grammys deigned to notice as much. What's perhaps even more important than her talent is her tenacity and vigilance when it comes to protecting her vision. This is significant.

The contemporary tenor of popular music -- and pop is something that "Radio Music Society" at once embraces and elevates -- suggests that fame is the ultimate goal. Spalding has seemingly learned the lesson well that fame is not the goal. It is simply a means of, as she said, being granted "more opportunities to play and be seen and heard." If you happened to catch Spalding and her band at Buffalo State College during the "Chamber Music Society" tour, you know that seeing and hearing her is all it takes to become a believer.

Spalding is going to be just fine, I know. Let's leave her alone and let her make her music.€



Source: (c)2012 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)