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Hamptons Life

Jun 15, 2010 10:46 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Esperanza Spalding can't wait to find out what she'll be playing on June 18 in Westhampton

Jun 15, 2010 10:46 AM

For bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding, the connection was instantaneous.

“I picked it up, and the sound, right away, just ... stopped me in my tracks,” she said, recalling her unexpected introduction to the bass. “It was so different from anything I’d experienced.”

Ms. Spalding, who will be performing at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on June 18, began her musical journey playing the violin; she taught herself when she was only 5 years old, she said in a recent telephone interview, inspired by a Yo-Yo Ma performance on an episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

Her transition from violin to bass “wasn’t premeditated at all,” she said, but a chance meeting with the aforementioned instrument, sitting idle in her high school’s band room. “I was hooked,” she said with a laugh.

She left school at 16: “I love learning, and I remember being enthused about school—but it never translated into the reward system,” she explained. After she acquired her GED, she subsequently attended the Berklee College of Music on a full scholarship, which, unfortunately, didn’t cover her living expenses.

Limited by a lack of funds, Ms. Spalding had to wheel her bass two miles to a train station as part of her commute, among other challenges. She was quite often broke. But the effort would prove worthwhile, and definitely translated into a reward system this time. During her studies at Berklee, she landed recording sessions and touring gigs with Pat Metheny, Patti Austin, and Joe Lovano; after her graduation in 2005, Berklee hired her as a music professor.

Fast forward to 2008. Ms. Spalding’s debut album, “Esperanza,” shot to the top of Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz chart, lingering there for more than 70 weeks. Appearances on “Late Night with David Letterman,” “Austin City Limits,” and NPR followed. Then, late last year, she scored one of the greatest coups of her career to date when she was personally chosen by 2009 Nobel Laureate President Obama to perform in Oslo, Norway, at the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony and Concert.

Today, “Esperanza” the album continues to notch sales and wow critics.

Still, Esperanza the musician is focused simply on getting more of her music out into the world.

“For ‘Esperanza,’” she explained, “I had too many songs. I knew there would be a lot of music on the way from me, so I wanted to edit it down to an introductory slice that would be representative of who I am as a musician.”

Ms. Spalding recently wrapped recording on her newest album, “Chamber Music Society,” due out in August. She also has another set of songs she’s planning to record this winter, for release next spring. And, given all of her achievements so far, her next goal might surprise you.

“I’m still trying to figure out how to be a solid, strong bass player,” she said. “It’s an ongoing process.”

When asked what the audience can expect from her upcoming show at the Westhampton PAC (where she’ll be bringing her trusty 200-year-old flatback 
5/8 acoustic bass), Ms. Spalding herself seemed a little in the dark.

“I don’t even know what to expect,” she laughed. “Sometimes I feel like an audience member myself—‘oh, what’s going on? Wow, that’s cool!’—but we’ll primarily be performing songs from my first album. Most of the new songs need live strings, so I’m saving those for later.”

The up-and-coming bass player comes across as somewhat bemused by all the attention, more impressed by other musicians’ work than her own. This doesn’t appear to be just a show of humility for the benefit of an interview; she seems sincerely grateful for her musical gifts and the chance to share them.

“I have the privilege of being able to travel the world and have people see my shows,” she said. “I have a place in Manhattan, and it’s so amazing—all the people that live there, working on projects—and I get to walk in that cross-pollination that’s happening all the time.”

“It’s very humbling to go to clubs like the Village Vanguard,” she continued. “It’s this little club in a basement that seats 120 people, and I see these incredible legends of jazz, and I go, ‘that’s what it’s all about,’ you know? Making music, doing your craft, and knowing that there will always be people to support it.”

Esperanza Spalding will perform at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Friday, June 18, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $45, $55, or $65, available online at whbpac.org.; in person at the Arts Center at 76 Main Street in Westhampton Beach, or by telephoning the box office at 631-288-1500.

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