A lengthy childhood illness kept Esperanza Spalding housebound and home-schooled for a stretch during her elementary school years. She never quite adjusted to the traditional classroom. "It was just hard for me to fit into a setting where I was expected to sit in a room and swallow everything that was being fed to me," recalls Spalding, now 25 and a jazz singer, bassist and composer.
Her drive and intelligence were such that she attended college (Portland State in her Oregon hometown) by 16. And at 20, she became the youngest faculty member in the history of Boston's Berklee College of Music.
By 23, she had recorded her first album - her own compositions and assorted jazz covers in three languages. The eponymous "Esperanza" - her name is Spanish for hope - features Spalding on bass and vocals. If you catch her quartet in concert Friday night at Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, you'll see she even does a kind of interpretive dance as she plays.
Why the bass? It's not the traditional instrument for a singer. "I started with the violin," she says, painting in those few words a picture of futility: A singer-violinist. "I wasn't singing when I discovered the bass," she says, though her voice has been described as both a siren and a lullaby caress. But it was classical music that first got her attention - at age 4. She watched Yo-Yo Ma playing on TV's "Mister Rogers Neighborhood." "That was when I first realized I wanted to do something musical," she says.
"That's what turned me on to jazz," Spalding says. "I was infatuated with coming into a playing situation and having no idea of what would happen. I was not very connected to the world of the classical violin." Too structured, maybe - like the grade-school classroom? "The bass was more accessible to me. It spoke to me."
Exclusive subscription offer
Newsday covers the stories that matter most to Long Islanders. We dig deep to uncover the facts, hold the powerful in check and keep a watchful eye on Long Island.
Your digital subscription, starting at $1, supports local journalism vital to the community.SUBSCRIBE NOW
Spalding, whose 2008 album rose to the top of Billboard's Contemporary Jazz chart, where it remained for 70 weeks, counts jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pop icon Stevie Wonder among the most influential artists in her career. "I always had an aversion to following one certain approach," she says of the diverse styles that have inspired her. But her biggest gig so far - no apologies to "Late Night With David Letterman" or the Newport Jazz Festival necessary - was last year in Oslo, Norway. She not only played the Nobel Peace Prize concert but also during the ceremony itself. Apparently President Barack Obama was impressed enough to invite her after two performances at the White House.
Esperanza Spalding in concert with pianist Leo Genovese, guitarist Ricardo Vogt and drummer Justin Brown: 8 p.m. Friday at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, 75 Main St., 631-288-1500, whbpac.org, $45 to $65