My main impression after doing some research about Esperanza Spalding, acclaimed jazz bassist and singer, was this: while you, Ms. Spalding, may reject the notion that you are a musical prodigy, many would vehemently disagree. Spalding, a native of Portland, Oregon, taught herself to play the violin by the age of five and played alongside the Chamber Music Society of Oregon until she was 15. She also began playing the guitar at age 8, and went on to learn the oboe, clarinet, and what would eventually become her main love: the bass. She is able to sing in three languages, received two music scholarships after obtaining her GED as a teen, and after graduation from Berkeley College of Music at age 20, she became one of the youngest musical instructors in the history of the institution. In 2009, Spalding was selected by President Obama to sing at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies.
2011 was an extraordinary year for Spalding: she was the first jazz artist to ever be named Best New Artist at the Grammy Awards, received Jazz Artist of the Year at the Boston Music Awards, and also enjoyed the honor of being best-selling contemporary jazz artist of the year. Her very recent release, Radio Music Society, is her attempt to expose the mainstream media and public to jazz-trained musicianship. She is in a unique position to do so, having garnered much attention for her rendition of “What a Wonderful World” at this year’s Oscars. See what all the fuss is about for yourself: Esperanza Spalding is set to take the Congo Square Stage at Jazz Fest on Thursday, May 3.
- Nikki Carter
The pure, clear as a bell multi-octave range of Dianne Reeves has earned her multiple Grammys for Best Jazz Vocal Performance. But it’s the audience who wins when listening to the seasoned Reeves. In an age when many female singers opt to coo like little girls, Reeves offers the kind of confident, mature sound that comes from some four decades of performance and twenty studio albums. Often accompanied by no more than a piano or the spare plucks of an acoustic guitar, Reeves’ nuanced, patient performances carry the stage on their own and lure listeners into the intimate emotional landscape of the song. Though she’s performed just about every jazz standard, Reeves’ influences include the blues, Latin American rhythms as well as the occasional pop cover. See Diane Reeves perform at Jazz Fest on Sunday, April 29 at the Zatarain’s/WWOZ Jazz Tent.
A relative newcomer, Janelle Monae also draws inspiration from old school classics and cites hip hop, jazz and artists such as Stevie Wonder and David Bowie. With her finger snapping and swiveling feet, the pompadour wearing, tuxedo donning performer appears like a contemporary reincarnation of the Brat Pack. In truth, Monae looks more fabulous in menswear than most men, not surprising given that her producer is Sean Puffy Combs and for some, it may be just enough to look at Janelle Monae sport her signature black and white wardrobe on the stage. However, it would be unfair to dismiss Monae’s pristine voice and reach. For those new to Monae, her recent hit “Tightrope” features Outkast’s Big Boi and a beat so hypnotic it’s tough to resist the urge to dance on the furniture. See Janelle Monae perform at Jazz Fest on Sunday, April 29 on the Gentilly Stage.
- Allison Alsup