Jazz sensation Esperanza Spalding rolls into St. Paul Tuesday night for a concert at St. Catherine's University. Spalding, an upright bassist and singer, is one of the hottest performers on the jazz scene right now.
But for someone who has won a Grammy, been invited to play at the White House, and been the subject of a long and glowing profile in the New Yorker, she is very down to earth.
When asked about a critic's description of her work as projecting a "sophisticated intimacy," she's non-committal at first.
"That sounds nice. I mean it doesn't sound bad," she said with a chuckle. But then she warmed to her subject.
"It's nice that people think about something enough to come up with their own unique description of it," Spalding said. "Everybody has something unique to say because it touches somebody in a different way. But yes, it's certainly intimate."
Spalding spoke from Austin, Texas, a stop on her current Chamber Music Society tour. She grew up in Portland, Oregon, where she tried a couple of different instruments before settling on the upright bass. Why the bass?
"It probably has to do with what you get exposed to, and I happened to be exposed to the bass," she said. "Someone briefly introduced me to the idea of improvisational playing, and those two things together are really what kept me interested in the bass."
"Experimenting with that sound, and trying to find all the ways I could express myself with that sound was what really kept me coming back to the instrument until I really made a committment to play it," she added.
Spalding then began singing as well, which she says is a matter of practice -- not much different from a pianist playing chords with one hand, and melody with the other.
Spalding says she writes constantly, and rather than choosing a path, she waits to see what develops. Her album, Chamber Music Society, began coming together when she realized she was writing string arrangements that harken back to some early classical training.
"And I thought, that would be a nice thing to explore for a couple of years, like that way of playing again, but it's much more relying on improvisation. And I thought it would be great to explore that with strings," she said.
Spalding says the music has evolved on the road. And returning to that idea of intimacy, she says the live performance is a very different experience. It's a sad reality that the deep, rich tones of an upright bass lose a lot when recorded and played back over small speakers.
"The musical experience is so much richer live," she said. "So that's one of the things you get from going to see a record you know well, live too."
She says she strives to create a quiet listening space at her concerts, so people can immerse themselves in the music.
Esperanza Spalding is perhaps the hottest thing in jazz right now, to the point where some people say it detracts from the excellence of her music. But she says not to worry.
"I don't suffer at all," she said. "I'm having a great time."
And she expects she'll continue to have a great time, just as long as she's able to keep playing her music.