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Ace of Bass

For Esperanza Spalding, practice makes perfect

By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | April 22, 2005

Esperanza Spalding's six-year love affair with the upright bass sort of snuck up on her.

Spalding, 20, who will lead a trio tomorrow night at Roxbury Community College's Mainstage Theater, was fooling around with a bass she found in the band room at her Portland, Ore., high school one day when her band director walked in and asked if she wanted to learn the instrument.

Spalding had shown up at school that day intending to quit studying violin, but the band director taught her a blues bass line in F, and soon she was getting work around town on her new instrument. She was 15 when she debuted at a local club with jazz singer Sweet Baby James Benton, and by the time she left Portland for Berklee two years later she had played her upright and sung on a couple of CDs with the short-lived fusion trio Noise to Pretend.

Still, Spalding's affection for the bass was not quite a matter of love at first sight.

''At first it was just painful, and I hated it," she says, seated in a Berklee College of Music practice room. Her small hands, she notes, made playing bass particularly difficult. ''But I liked the sound," she says. ''I like the role of the bass in the band. That's a big thing: I don't want to be a frontman, and I don't like having to play solos all the time."

Spalding didn't always like practicing in those early days, either. ''I just like to play when it makes me happy," she admits. ''Sometimes sitting for six hours [practicing] doesn't make me happy, so I don't want to do it."

Luckily for her, she didn't need to early on.

''For someone who didn't practice very much, bass just came very naturally to me," Spalding says. ''I knew how to play the bass. I knew what made sense somehow. And so that was really appealing. And people would say to me, 'You're a great bass player.' Nobody ever said, 'You're a great violin player, you're a great piano player.' "

These days, however, Spalding can't get enough of practicing her bass. ''It's bizarre," she says. ''It's kind of like this blossoming love. I love even holding it now."

Others love hearing her play it. Spalding's onetime professor Joe Lovano has already hired her for a short tour of Canada following her graduation next month, with a quartet rounded out by Berklee percussion professor Francisco Mela on drums and pianist James Weidman. Spalding has also been hired to tour with a Ray Charles tribute band, and she helped pay her way through Berklee by backing vocalist Patti Austin on a summer tour of Italy.

Then there are Spalding's own projects. Earlier this month, she recorded her first CD as a leader, joined by Mela and pianist Aruán Ortiz, another Berklee professor. The disc, titled ''Junjo," features Spalding originals and vocals and is due out from Barcelona-based Ayva Musica in the fall. Spalding's compositions and singing will also be featured at tomorrow night's show, which features Leonardo Genovese on piano and Mela on drums.

Much of what drives Spalding's desire to practice of late is her determination to couple her singing with her bass playing. ''It's a very unexplored instrument, especially for singing," she says. ''There are a lot of things that we don't do as bass players, because they're really hard. I just would rather take the time to figure out those things."

To judge by a short, impromptu demonstration she provides in the practice room, Spalding is well on her way to nailing down her ambition. She starts off casually singing a few bars of a standard while accompanying herself with a walking bass line, and follows that with equally charming Brazilian vocals and a more abstract accompaniment on bass.

''She really knows what she's got," says Mela by phone afterward, ''but she doesn't know yet how to combine those two abilities that she has. She's a great singer, she's a great bass player, and so she's just trying to put all the things in her to go in one direction."

The sight of a musician simultaneously playing upright bass and singing is a rarity. So, too, is that of a female upright bass player. But Spalding's thin frame and striking hairdo could soon become a commonplace sight for Bostonians.

Berklee is contemplating replacing the graphic design that has long ornamented the Boylston Street side of the Berklee Performance Center with a three-story photograph of Spalding and her bass, pending approval from the Back Bay Association.

''From what I've heard, it's kind of abstract," she says of the image under consideration. ''Unless you know it's me, I don't think you'll be like, 'That looks like that girl.' I don't think I'll be recognizable. So that's cool."

Berklee bash: Three more Berklee standouts and their bands will have their music featured at the Regattabar Thursday at 7:30 p.m., when Berklee's student-run label Jazz Revelation Records celebrates the release of its second CD, ''Two."

Performers include pianist Yumiko Mikami, leader of the Northern Lights Band; guitarist Nir Felder and his group Junk Poetics; and percussionist Manavihare (Mimy) Fiaindratovo and his African- and Afro-Cuban-influenced jazz group Fikira.

Tickets cost $10 ($8 for students), and include free copies of the new CD. Call 617-395-7757 or visit www.regattabarjazz.com.

Bassist/singer/ composer Esperanza Spalding will perform with pianist Leonardo Genovese and drummer Francisco Mela at Roxbury Community College’s Mainstage Theater, 1234 Columbus Ave., at 8 p.m. tomorrow. Tickets $7. Call 617-541-5380 or visit www.rccmainstage.com.

© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
© Bill Beuttler