Esperanza Spalding: Vancouver International Jazz Festival (Review)

It’s a lukewarm late-June evening and Esperanza Spalding just went off.  The crowd at the Vancouver Jazz Festival looks stunned inside the Vogue Theatre just tucked off Granville St.

The concert began without Esperanza.  Her large band took the stage and began playing some subtle, rhythmic jazz as the audience collectively held it’s breathe.  Soon thereafter, the musical phenom emerged from the drawn curtains.  Spalding’s tiny frame gracefully pranced towards the center of the stage with a bass guitar in her hands and her vocal chords wildly intact.  Her immense hair swayed back and forth as she soulfully recited anecdotes between songs that made the performance seem more than purely musical; A show within a show.  Spalding’s stage presence was truly remarkable. She was able to blend together an intensely rehearsed, professional performance with an air of lightness and improv that kept the audience in constant wonderment.

Spalding’s background story is remarkable.  She was born in a rough neighborhood in Portland, Oregon to parents of very mixed racial backgrounds including Welsh, Native American, African-American and Hispanic.  In an interview with Al Jazeera, Spalding claims that she “didn’t identify with any of those [ethnicities] specifically,” which she says resulted in her being “culture-identity neutral.”  This diversity is prevalent in her work, which rarely fits into one specific genre and encompasses music from all over the world.  Spalding also said in her interview with Al Jazeera that this meshing of styles and cultures her to connect with a larger audience:

“I feel like I can move and morph between different areas of music I want to explore and I certainly get the feeling that when someone comes to a show, yes it’s very eclectic and that can be considered a bad thing, but I think the good thing is that all the different kinds of people attending the concert will, hopefully hear something that speaks to them.”

The jazz star’s positivity and optimism are amazing – a stark contrast to the conditions which she grew up in. Spalding never met her father who fell victim to the penal system soon after her birth. This forced her mother to raise Esperanza and her brother on minimal resources.  A task made infinitely more difficult once Esperanza contracted an immune deficiency that forced her out of school at a young age and into home schooling.  Miraculously, she dropped out of high school and received her G.E.D by age 16.  She was accepted into Portland State University’s music program, becoming the youngest person in the entire bass program.  This enabled her to ultimately audition for the Berklee School of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, where she received a full-scholarship despite having much less formal training than other applicants.  Another roadblock appeared in Spalding’s young life as she learned she couldn’t afford living expenses that were simultaneous with the Berklee lifestyle. This might have stopped an average 16-year-old, but Spalding is anything but average.

She and her fellow musicians gathered and organized a benefit concert in order to fund the education costs, which enabled her to make ends meet, at least initially.  Despite rigorous financial and physical demands associated with her high-caliber education, Spalding persevered and against the odds was hired as one of the youngest professors in Berklee’s history at the ripe age of 20 upon completion of her schooling.  The rest is history.  Three albums and three Grammy’s later, Spalding remains one of the best-kept secrets the music industry has to offer.  In an age when society’s most cherished artists are teeny-boppers like Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus, Spalding is a revelation.  She has the innate gift of blending true artistry with a serious connection to reality.

Back in the Vogue her show is coming to a close.  “I love this planet and I love you all,” she announces to the star struck audience. Excited faces around the room make one thing obvious—they love her, too.

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