Theo Wargo, Getty Images - Ozzy Osbourne fails to recall a rather hazy period of…
- Posted on Dec 24th 2009 5:00PM by Tad Hendrickson
"The White House gig opened a lot of opportunities for me, obviously," Spalding says via phone. "It's hard for me to even remember the time sequence of that stuff. I know that it happened, and some things are coming and so much is happening moment to moment, day after day, that I really don't get a chance to think about it. Every once in a while someone will remind me of something insane that happened and it's awesome, but I'm just so busy I don't think about it. I think, actually, that's the best way to be."
While this kind of career trajectory is rare in jazz, Spalding has always moved fast and taken her own roads to get there. Born in 1984, Spalding was inspired by a Yo-Yo Ma appearance on 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' to pick up a violin at age 4. Within a year, she was playing with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon, a community orchestra in her native Portland that featured child and adult musicians. By 15, she was the organization's concertmaster. During a brief stint in high school -- she was home-schooled for much of her childhood -- she picked up bass because it offered opportunities outside of classical music. At 16, GED in hand, she enrolled at Oregon State University. At 17, she was off to Berklee College of Music in Boston, graduating at 20 and becoming the school youngest faculty member ever at age 21.
With just two albums out under her own name, 2006's 'Junjo' and 2008's 'Esperanza,' Spalding is jazz's It Girl, garnering the kind of attention that Diana Krall, Madeleine Peyroux, Norah Jones and very few others have. Perhaps the best example would be the arrival of a young Wynton Marsalis in the early '80s as the new savior of jazz.
With so many "wow" moments under her belt already, it's hard to remember that Spalding has been playing bass for only 10 years. Even so, she dismisses her quick mastery of the instrument. "I know people who have been playing for six years and they are just mind-blowing," she points out. "They've just tapped into a level of agility. Maybe they just know how to practice. I do still need a lot of maintenance work that maybe people who have been playing longer maybe have technique that doesn't go away. I'm not at that point yet. Perhaps at some point I won't have to take a week and really shed on the instrument and focus."
Spalding's group is typically either a trio with bass, piano and drums or a quartet with a percussionist added (which was the Nobel Prize lineup). Out front, she plays bass and often sings. Her music draws upon bebop, swing, Brazilian, pop and Latin styles. Some critics have complained that she's spreading herself too thin with all the appearances, but there is no denying her abilities. Onstage, Spalding certainly enjoys herself -- her head, accented by a big Afro, gets shook every which way as she plays fat grooves and tricky solos. In between songs, her effervescent personality shines through, though her Nobel performance was relatively restrained, but understandably so, considering the gravity of the situation.
Spalding nonetheless came through this night like a champ. She claims that she still gets butterflies before she plays, but she's got some coping methods for dealing with it.
"Sound is a gift that goes away unless you are recording it," she says with a laugh. "The most awful thing you can do is over [once] you are done playing those notes. You get to keep the memory and lesson, which is awesome. In most any situation I'm gonna say, 'Eff it.' I'm doing to do the best that I can with the skills I have. Be true to me; be true to the context. If it works it works; if it doesn't, maybe next time."
So far, this philosophy and just about everything else regarding her career seem to be working out better than anyone could have ever dreamed. With more touring for Spalding on the horizon, the world won't see her next album until mid- to late 2010. Obviously, there is at least one first couple who look forward to that day.
Here's what our friends at All About Jazz are up to:
Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide
Leo Blanco, 'Africa Latina'
John Moulder, 'Bifrost'
Dave Douglas' Tiny Bell Trio, 'Constellations'
Ben Goldberg, 'Go Home'
Vijay Iyer: Into the Mainstream
Pete McCann: Looking Forward
Paul Wertico: All in a Day's Work
Jazz a Special Focus of APAP 2010