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Who is Esperanza Spalding? Glad you asked

February 14, 2011 | 12:03 pm

Now that the bitter shockwaves in Bieber Nation have subsided and reality has set in that the Grammys actually voted for a real, live jazz musician as best new artist, we hope pop-music fans have begun transitioning their confusion into curiosity about Portland native Esperanza Spalding.

The first thing to get to know is the music, which Grammy viewers might have accidentally heard last night underneath all the talking by the Grammys chief and that guy from "Glee" following Spalding's big win. Contrary to what the term "best new artist" implies, Spalding's album "Chamber Music Society" was actually her third album. Released on a Spanish label, her 2006 debut "Junjo" put her on the map when she was just 22, with lilting nonverbal vocals and a nimble trio that showcased her acrobatic work on upright bass. The album hints at the precociousness that comes with being the youngest ever to earn a teaching position at Boston's Berklee College of Music (Spalding was 20) and showcases her respect for jazz's roots in a cover of late pianist Jimmy Rowles' "The Peacocks" (listen above).

Spalding's 2008 follow-up, "Esperanza," marked a departure of sorts with a mix touching on Brazilian bossa nova, Latin jazz and even touches of pop and hip-hop in an album that put her effervescent vocals front and center. Although it undoubtedly marked a breakthrough leading to high-profile performances at the White House, the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and the typically rock-oriented Austin City Limits, Spalding sounded grateful but somewhat dissatisfied with that album's depiction of her talents when we talked last summer her performance at the Playboy Jazz Festival ("Esperanza Spalding, liberation fighter for jazz").

"There were some things about the record that I didn’t choose," she said. "I was a brand-new artist, basically had to kind of balance what I wanted with what the label wanted, and whatever you do I think it’s important to do what you believe."

The more eclectic follow-up, "Chamber Music Society," marked a significant step forward. True to its title, the album highlighted Spalding's classical influences with lush string accompaniment (arranged in part by co-producer Gil Goldstein) but also gave Spalding room to run in less-structured environments. Watch this 2009 footage from Spanish TV of Spalding covering Nina Simone's "Wild Is the Wind," the studio version of which was an invigorating highlight from "Chamber Music Society."

Though Spalding's knack for genre-blind composition and high-profile gigs landed her on the Grammys radar, her skill as an improviser may be the aspect of her musical personality that most points to her remarkable potential as a jazz artist. Spalding, who backed veteran saxophonist Joe Lovano in his Us Five ensemble for two albums, talked about all she had learned from performing with musicians of his caliber.

"That’s what makes me want to push myself. ... I play with Joe Lovano and I think anybody who plays with him feels like, 'What? I can’t do anything,' " she said. "It’s not a question of I should push myself because people are watching, it’s a question of there’s so much I don’t know and want to know it so I gotta keep at work." Watch Spalding work with Lovano's band in a fiery solo below.

-- Chris Barton

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