American singer, songwriter and bassist Esperanza Spalding has forged a reputation as one of the jazz visionaries of the new millennium. Her work has won multiple Grammy Awards and received both critical and mainstream acclaim.
The Portland, Oregon native trained and taught herself on several instruments and was recognized as a prodigious talent from a very early age. Her musical acuity earned her scholarships from Portland State University and Berklee School of Music. Record deals from indie labels soon followed and so her musical career began.
Click on the player above to hear “5 on 5: Esperanza Spalding” and get a feel for Spalding’s genre-pushing career with these five essential tracks:
The Progressive Underground’s 5 on 5: Esperanza Spalding
1. “Ponta De Areia”
Spalding released the heavily Latin-flavored “Junjo” in 2006 and a self-titled album, the jazz fusion-inflected “Esperanza Spalding” in 2008. “Ponta De Areia” from that album is a glorious re-imagining of the Brant Fernando Rocha/Milton Nascimento classic that was made famous by legendary jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter and later covered by Earth, Wind & Fire. Sung in Brazilian Portuguese, Spalding’s flute-like voice makes this selection sound as beautiful as ever.
2. “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes”
In 2011, Spalding took home the Grammy Award for best new artist. She was the first jazz artist to ever win the award, and her triumph over pop music darling Justin Bieber sparked controversy and upset his legions of fans and fans of pop music in general.
Undaunted, Spalding dropped two albums which proved to be bookends to each other. “Chamber Music Society” and “Radio Music Society,” were a mix of deep traditional jazz and radio accessible jazz respectively, the latter of which earned her another Grammy. The award win increased her profile even more and made her an in-demand cameo guest artist on other projects, like “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes” off of Janelle Monae’s album “Electric Lady.”
Spalding’s 2016 concept album “Emily’s D+Evolution” was co-produced with longtime David Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti, where Spalding sings through the alter ago of Emily (her middle name).
“Emily’s D+Evolution” was lauded an album of conceptual artistic invention without seeming pretentious, with many critics hailing its forays into jazz, jazz fusion, funk and art rock and likening it to a jazzed-out Joni Mitchell-esque masterwork.
4. “I Am Telling You”
The experimentation of “Emily’s D+Evolution” led into her next album release, the groundbreaking “Exposure.” The writing, arranging and recording processes, along with breaks for food and sleep, were filmed for 77 hours straight and broadcast over Facebook Live, adding a reality television aesthetic to the process.
The production became a voyeuristic sensation as she completed the album in her 77-hour timeline, the number chosen because one of her spiritual advisors told her that the number represented divine completeness.
5. ”Move Many (joints)”
Today, Spalding is an in-demand, global artist with worldwide name recognition and acclaim. She performs internationally and is a music professor at the Berklee School of Music and Harvard University. At 36 years old, she has packed a lifetime of musical growth and experiences into a career that is still growing and evolving.
Her most recent album “12 Little Spells” is a significant departure from all her previous work. It’s a combination of highly experimental space jazz with odd meters and melodies that are cleverly woven together with a breezy charm and panache. The boundary-pushing album earned her the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album in 2020.