|Esperanza Spalding’s Musical Journey
By Mark Holston
The trappings of success in the music business come in many forms. For singer, bassist and composer Esperanza Spalding, winning a Grammy Award last year for “Best New Artist” tops a long list of accomplishments for young native of Portland, Oregon who has become a true superstar of today’s contemporary jazz movement. In the case of Anna Maria Mendieta, a San Francisco-based harpist whose artistry embraces a broad range of classical and popular idioms, being tapped to perform for the King and Queen of Spain and the Pope is a clear sign of her growing international stature. And, for classical guitarist Berta Rojas, a native of Paraguay who today calls Washington, DC home, her passport to fame is, quite literally, a passport: The diplomat’s passport she carries certifies that she is an “Artistic Ambassador of Paraguay.”
Each of these young Latinas is a living reminder of how raw talent, melded with focused ambition and leavened with an expansive supporting network of family, friends, and mentors, can propel artists to the upper echelon of their craft. And all three realize just how serendipitous their ascension has been.
Berta Rojas. Photo by Juan Sosa.
Anna Maria Mendieta.
Anna Maria Mendieta performs âTango del Cielo.â
For Anna Maria, whose background includes backing a diverse constellation of pop music stars, from Barry Manilow to Olivia Newton John and Frank Sinatra, Jr., performing with the legendary rock group Moody Blues was a watershed event. “I remember having a very surreal moment while in concert with that group,” she recalls. “We were playing ‘Nights In White Satin’, and, in the middle of the song, I flashed back to when I was a little girl listening to that song on the oldies radio station in the back of our family station wagon.” Just a kid, Anna Maria nonetheless noticed the beautiful harp solo in the tune. “I was thinking how cool it was to add classical instruments to rock music,” she adds. “I listened so carefully; I wanted to memorize every note. I was hypnotized by the music. And then to be, years later, on stage with Moody Blues, with the lights, fog, effects, the screaming fans, I was in awe of the fact that now I was playing that beautiful harp part! Dreams do come true!”
Berta, who has spent most of her career adhering strictly to the classical guitar tradition she honed while a student in Asuncion, Paraguay, an opportunity to record with the renowned Cuban jazz saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, presented an opportunity to orient her musicianship in a new direction and challenge her creative senses. “With Paquito, there is a true fusion of styles,” Berta comments. “I never cease to be a classical guitarist in my meeting with him, but having explored different styles in my training, it allows me to play popular music with a certain flexibility. That let me work with him coming from a place perhaps more comfortable and relaxed that one that would have been if I only had been trained in classical school. Playing with Paquito was a constant joy and creative challenge and I was very privileged to be able to work with a great among the greatest. For me it was pure growth!”
Esperanza’s career trajectory has led to an interesting reversal of rolls. Not yet 30 years of age, the bassist spent her student years at Boston’s famed Berklee College of Music perfecting the art of jazz improvisation while backing such established musicians as saxophonist Joe Lovano. Today a headliner whose popularity has eclipsed the stature of Lovano and other former mentors, Esperanza finds herself in the unique position of being able to give these significant but not well known instrumentalists a shot at wider exposure.
(L-R) Hector del Curto, Pablo Ziegler, Anna Maria Mendieta, Claudio Ragazzi.
Anna Maria Mendieta and Olivia Newton John.
Anna Maria Mendieta with singer Josh Groban.
“A big aspect of my new album, Radio Music Society,” she states. “Is involving a number of great jazz musicians. I realized that I might be able to send some of this music through to an arena of public consumption that it doesn’t often reach. I was thinking, ‘Wow, what if you were driving in your car and turned on the radio and could hear Joe Lovano or drummer Jack DeJohnette!’” If people just get a chance to hear her music, Esperanza emphatically believes, there‘s a good chance they‘ll like it. “The issue of the accessibility of jazz isn’t due to the content of the music, it’s just due to the fact that so many people don’t have an opportunity to hear it. So, this record might make its way to the public ear that might not ordinarily listen to jazz. People might hear something they like and then go a step further and check out the albums of the artists on my record.”
While the early development of all three musicians was greatly influenced by their families, each has a distinctly different relationship with their connection to Latino culture.
Growing up in distant Paraguay, isolated both geographically and culturally in the hinterland of South America, Berta experienced a childhood filled with music, although her parents were not themselves musicians. “Two of my brothers were musicians,” she recalls of her youth in Asuncion, “And it was strange that in a family as large as mine — my father had 13 brothers, for instance — all the musical abilities seemed to have focused at home. They tell me that my great grandmother, Berta Kunzle de Degeller, who was of Swiss descent, played the guitar and would play violin and guitar duets with my great grandfather. In this large family, the only one named after her is me, and I am also the only one who plays the guitar as well. Without a doubt I possess strong traits of my great grandmother.”
Anna Maria’s personal story is a bit more complex but reflects the deep involvement in music of her extended family. Her father plays the guitar while her mother’s instrument is the accordion. The couple met through their music and virtually everyone in the family plays an instrument. Anna Maria is also giving several of her nieces harp lessons.
While her family traces its lineage to Spain, in the New World there were branches in both Mexico and Guatemala. “My Mexican grandmother lived with us until I was 18, and only spoke Spanish,” she recalls of her early childhood. “We’d see my Guatemalan grandmother four times a week, as she would come over to help my mother with the kids or the laundry. Both would cook, and tell stories, and share their cultures with us in many ways. And what stories indeed! My Mexican grandmother’s grandfather was a general. His son became a symphony conductor, another became a concert violinist, and one of my grandmother’s brother’s really did run away to join the circus.”
Her Guatemalan grandmother came to San Francisco to start a new life, her father having been a tobacco plantation owner lost everything because of being on the wrong side of an incoming government. “He sent his wife and daughters to the U.S. to be safe and have a new beginning,” Anna Maria affirms. “My grandmother was a flapper in the 1920’s and met my grandfather at a dance. He was from Cadiz, Spain and was an artist. She was beautiful and looked like a movie star; in fact one of her relatives became one, and starred with Rudolf Valentino in the silent movies.”
In Esperanza’s case, her connections to her Latino roots are more obscure. Her mother claims a mix of Welsh, Hispanic and Native American ethnicities while her father was African-American. “My connection with the Latino culture really comes from friends and my extended family, not so much through a biological connection,” she explains. “My mom just didn’t stay connected with her family, and although she knows that somewhere in her background there is that Hispanic link, from exactly where it is not clear. The information wasn’t passed down through the decades.”
Berta Rojas. Photo by Jenny Mottar.
Concert in Barcelona at Palau de la musica.
In Argentina, duo with Paquito D'Rivera.
Malasya, Master Class.
Esperanza Spalding. Photo courtesy of Montuno Productions. Photo by Sandrine Lee.
Her affinity for the Latin traditions, however, was easily transmitted through personal associations and music. “My connection with the culture was growing up in a really diverse neighborhood in Portland and through friends of my mother,” she adds. She came by her name for a simple but highly symbolic reason. “My mom taught in Mexico for two years and really felt connected to the culture there,” Esperanza continues. “So when she became pregnant with me, she wanted my arrival to signify hope in her life. She thought that Esperanza was a beautiful and fitting name, so, here I am!”
The influence of Latin and Brazilian music is particularly strong on her debut album Junjo, released on a Spanish label in 2006. “Most of the music that enters my playing comes from performing with people who are experts with particular styles,” she explains, noting that her two collaborators on that first album were Cuban musicians. “I’ve never been one to dissect something in a vacuum and bring it to a playing situation. My appreciation for Cuban and Brazilian music came through playing experiences. Little by little, through the process of playing it, it becomes part of your identity.”
The career development of the three musicians has seen some unconventional, but ultimately beneficial, twists and turns. Esperanza, for instance, tip-toed lightly into the classical realm for the album that earned her a Grammy, Chamber Music Society, scoring arrangements for a string quartet to back her jazz and funk-rooted compositions. Anna Maria, who is the principal harpist with the Sacramento Philharmonic, has branched out successfully into pop music and tango, recording several albums aimed at a non classical audience, including Enchanted Christmas and Broadway Center Stage. And Berta, who has released such critically acclaimed solo recital albums as Intimate Barrios and Terruño, now has the opportunity to attract a new audience through her collaboration with Paquito D’Rivera. Their duo album, A Day and a Half, will be released late this spring. Along the way, each step forward on the career path has come with challenges and opportunities.
Esperanza, who went, literally overnight, from a child prodigy in Portland to the toast of the jazz world on the campus of the world’s most important jazz finishing school, is a young woman totally in charge of her future. “I don’t have a ‘producer’ in the traditional sense of the word,” she affirms. “I’ll come up with an idea, and my manager will begin massaging the concept with the record label. I actually conceived of Radio Music Society at the same time as I did the Chamber Music Society album, but there was no way all of the ideas could live together on the same album.”
So, Esperanza made a strategic decision. “Because I had been experimenting with writing for strings, I saw colors emerge out a few of the songs,” she adds. “And I decided to go the chamber music way in interpreting some of the compositions. But, what’s the opposite of chamber music? It’s radio, where you just blast something out. So, with that idea in mind, I separated the works into two families of music. The more I worked with the concept, the more I realized that it wasn’t whether or not the music would actually end up on the radio — the songs are too long anyway — but that it would sound beautiful, that we would all have a great time and that I could bring to fruition the potential I felt in every composition.”
For Anna Maria, every day seems to bring another surprising development in her career. Recently, the American Harp Society co-commissioned a concerto featuring Latin American rhythms to be composed for her, with performances already scheduled with three symphony orchestras next year. It’s another example of how this charismatic young harpist has impressed so many across the entire spectrum of classical and popular music styles. After all, none other than Barry Manilow called her his “favorite harpist.”
“Many years ago,” she recalls, “I played for several of Barry’s touring shows, and I was told by his assistant just before the first performance that he would introduce all of the instrumentalists and ask them to play a little something. He probably expected just a little strum from the harpist, but when it came to my turn, I remember that I was very nervous inside not having anything planned. I played something very showy, hamming it up quite a bit. I think it caught everyone by surprise, because I remember Barry stopped, and with a big smile, chuckled and nodded approvingly!”
Anna Maria has also developed a passion for Argentina’s tango, a style previously unexplored by a harpist. “In 2005, in order to understand the music better,” she recounts, “I took tango dancing lessons and, what an eye opener! The music now made sense; I was learning how to be grounded and connect with the earth. We, as musicians, also have to become like dancers and be so intuitively sensitive to one another.” Her tango explorations led to associations with masters of the genre, the formation of her own touring group, Tango del Cielo, and an upcoming recording project to highlight her new expertise.
Of all three, Berta is the most focused on an objective. She has a strong conviction to make the music of her homeland better known throughout the world and shine a spotlight on the remarkable creativity of her country’s best classical composers. “I have a feeling that Paraguay comes from a deep silence, marked perhaps by years of dictatorship that made our ability to express ourselves outwardly very guarded,” she explains. Today, as a roving cultural ambassador, she is in a unique position to illuminate the artistry of Agustin Barrios, Luis Alberto del Paraná and other composers. “My duties are to keep traveling the world and providing that space where the audience and the artist meet, where the sounds of my land echo and silence becomes music.”
Esperanza Spalding. Photo courtesy of Montuno Productions. Photo by Sandrine Lee.
Esperanza performs at the BETâAwards in 2010.
Esperanza in the jazz world. Photo by George B. Wells
Esperanza Spalding. Photo by Carlos Pericas. Courtesy of Montuno Productions.