Sweet success for Esperenza Spalding

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Old 24-Mar-2011
Sweet success for Esperenza Spalding

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She was the least-known and the lowest-selling artist in the group. But that didn't stop Esperanza Spalding, a 26-year-old jazz vocalist and bassist who combines old-school cool with an ebullient personality that has energised her genre, from winning the Grammy Award for best new artist in one of the night's biggest surprises.

Spalding was a decided underdog in an eclectic field of competitors that included the teen pop idol and newly minted movie star Justin Bieber, hip-hop artist Drake, British indie pop-rockers Florence and the Machine and English folk rockers Mumford & Sons.

With an experimental style that integrates neo-soul, funk, hip-hop and bossa nova elements, Spalding has emerged as the rare jazz artist who's respected by critics and old-timers, but also possesses the crossover potential to attract audiences beyond the hard-core jazz aficionados.

In accepting her award, Spalding thanked the Recording Academy "for even nominating me in this category".

Current Nielsen Soundscan figures show Bieber with three albums currently on the charts and combined sales of more than 4.5 million copies. Although substantially short of those numbers, Esperanza's third release, Chamber Music Society (2010), ranked among the top-selling contemporary jazz albums earlier this year. Her second recording, Esperanza (2008), topped Billboard's contemporary jazz chart for more than 70 weeks.

Spalding became the first jazz artist to win the award since the pop-oriented Norah Jones took home the trophy in 2003. Jazz artists seldom triumph in any major Grammy category. When Herbie Hancock won album of the year in 2008 with River: The Joni Letters, he was the first jazz artist to do so in approximately a half century.

Spalding, raised by her single mother in a tough Oregon neighbourhood, has described her heritage as a mixture of African American, Latina, Welsh and Native American. Her stage presence - slender frame, prodigious afro and effusive demeanour - has enhanced her charismatic appeal.

Her champions include President Barack Obama, who chose her to play at the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize Concert in his honour.

In a Los Angeles Times review of Spalding's performance last October in Santa Monica', Greg Burk wrote that she "embraced her instrument like a friend; her fingers danced up and down the neck with sure spontaneity. When her voice - high and airy, with a touch of grain - sprang out in scat or melisma, her hands conversed easily with her throat, each making space for the other."

After winning her award, Spalding said the acclaim wouldn't change her plans. "I guess it's just a blessing to be acknowledged in a genre that's considered an underdog. I got there by doing what's dear to my heart… For me this is the beginning of the beginning, I mean, I'm 26 and playing with people much older than me that are still doing it. Hopefully on the 30th album, I win something that's just as beautiful."

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