Jan. 13 2010 12:00 AM

Spalding brings warm musical wind to Wharton Center



Talk about a cold room for a musician: grandiose Oslo City Hall, lit extra white and bright for President Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize ceremony.

For five minutes last Dec. 10, Esperanza Spalding, the 26-year-old jazz star picked by Obama to perform, turned the big Norse icebox into a moonlit June garden.

“It was fun,” Spalding said. “People were really engaged. We even got some hoots and hollers when we were done.”

The Great Hall at MSU’s Wharton Center, where Spalding will play Wednesday, Jan. 20, will seem like a cozy dive by comparison.

Unfazed by the big shots staring from the dais, Spalding closed her eyes, dug a groove under the permafrost with her upright bass and sang the chill away. Obama maintained his trademark chinup tilt of approval, while King Harald V of Norway pursed his lips and made a fisheye.

Contrary to appearances on YouTube, Spalding said, it felt “very natural.”

“When I met them, both the king and queen were like, ‘Nice job.’ They both like jazz music,” Spalding said. “People are hip. Dignitaries are people, too.”

She also chatted with the president, whom she called a “feet-on-the-ground dude.”

It’s hard not to ask: When you were a little girl, growing up on the rough side of Portland, did you ever think something like this would happen?

“Two months before it happened, I never would have imagined it,” she said.

Spalding seduces her lis- teners with subsoil-rich bass lines, a voice like a golden minnow swimming up your back and a hypnotic stage aura that’s part morphine and part caffeine. Add her all-devouring, multilingual musical curiosity as composer and performer and you have an American original for the 21st century.

But Spalding is a feet-on- the-ground dude, too. She shrugged off escalating hype that she’s a “new hope” for jazz.

“Esperanza” means “hope” in Spanish, and that only whips the froth higher. “Publicists and journalists have to say something,” she said. “That implies that some sort of interest has been lost in a style of music and I’m somehow going to bring that interest back. I don’t intend to and I don’t think I will.”

She emphasized that jazz has evolved since the purists’ beloved 1950s and ‘60s, fold- ing in elements of pop, rock, Latin, African music and oth- er sounds, and will continue to change. “I just imagine I’ll be a piece in that evolution,” she said.

Her diverse background — she has Welsh, Hispanic, Native American and African- American roots — set her up for an expansive musical trip in life.

She grew up in a rough neighbor- hood in Portland, raised by a strong, musically-inclined mother. Inspired by a glimpse of Yo-Yo Ma on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” she taught herself violin and played with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon at 5 years of age. She left the group at 15 as concertmaster.

The title of Spalding’s next album, “Chamber Music Society,” is a sly nod to that period. The new CD will be more adventurous than 2008’s sultry, radiant “Esperanza,” which stuck mainly to love songs.

“Our version is definitely not what you’d hear coming out of the Chamber Music Society of Whatever,” she said.

Spalding fell in love with the bass in high school and flexed her composing muscles in a local indie rock group called Noise for Pretend, while club dates plugged her into the working jazz scene. In 2005, straight out of college, she became one of the youngest profs ever at the Berklee College of Music.

Her teaching philosophy combines hard work with a wariness of over-anal- ysis.

“Pedagogy is like with quantum phys- ics,” she said. “If you measure an electron this way, the less you know about it that way. The more you break it down and look into a microscope the less you’re getting.”

To find another combination singer and bass player in jazz, you have to go back to a creaky 1940s novelty like Slam Stewart. Spalding chooses a larger frame of reference, naming Paul McCartney, Sting and Les Claypool of the band Primus as precedents.

“When you look at it, it’s quite a natural thing to do,” she said. “Those two lines of music — the treble or melody line and the bass line — that’s the exoskeleton of the song.”

Taken together, Spalding said, the sung melody and the bass line (she calls it the “root movement”) imply all the harmony in between.

That gives Spalding a lot of control over her sound, whether she plays a song of her own, or plows a wet, deep furrow into a crusty old standard like “Body and Soul.”

“The jazz standard is to the musician what the fruit bowl is to the painter,” she said. “You have a common medium every- one can see and relate to. As an artist, you use it to show your look, your approach.”

Spalding has spent a lot of time touring with jazz legend Joe Lovano (“totally ful- filling to play with”), but she also wants to focus more on her own compositions.

She’s arranging her music for strings and brass for another, more extroverted CD, “Radio Music Society,” due to appear at the same time as “Chamber Music Society.”

The two releases are meant to complement each other. “You can sit down with one and rock out to the other,” she said.

After living in Boston and New York for the past few years, she said she is finding “peace and quiet” in a garden graced Austin, Texas, neighborhood.

“I like to know that if I wanted to in the morning I could go see a river or walk by a lake,” she said. “That was a big part of my life in Oregon. It’s good for the music, too.”

Spalding is a fan of Thoreau, but despite her accelerating life, she doesn’t feel a need to retreat to a pond yet.

“I go to my room and watch Woody Allen movies,” she said.

Esperanza Spalding

7:30 p.m. Wednesday Jan. 20 Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall $35 (800) Wharton www.whartoncenter.com