If you really want to hear Esperanza Spalding get excited talking about jazz, ask her about its effect on 5-year-olds.
Speaking by phone from her home in Portland, Ore., the effervescent young bassist's conversational tempo shifts into another gear as she talks about leading a jazz workshop at an elementary school. Working with pianist and band mate Leo Genovese, Spalding introduced free improvisation to the kids as a musical twist on Cops and Robbers. Spalding promised to follow Genovese's lead, and that the kids should clap when she caught him.
"So Leo will play a phrase and maybe it's really crazy and I can't follow him and I'll go 'Awww.' And if he plays a phrase and I catch it and answer, they clap! They get it!" she said as a tea kettle whistled in the background. "That's a very oversimplified version of what happens in the music and improvisation, but it's also kind of the core of it.
"I feel like if a 5-year-old can get that ... maybe something's wrong with the way [free jazz] is being presented," she said with a laugh.
The future direction of jazz is a frequent topic for Spalding, but maybe that's a byproduct of her standing as one of its brightest new talents. Since her self-titled debut was released in 2008, the 25-year-old's lilting vocals and omnivorous musical approach touching on elements of bossa nova, jazz and funk have found her topping the contemporary jazz charts, featured in an ad campaign for a major clothing chain and playing high-profile venues such as Austin City Limits and the White House (twice).
Sunday she performs at the Playboy Jazz Festival, her second straight appearance at the event that comes right on the heels of a sold-out show at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival in Northern California.
"She's one of the first young players that's come along in quite some time who's not trying to tell someone else's story," said saxophonist Joe Lovano, one of Spalding's instructors at the Berklee College of Music and collaborator in his bold Us Five ensemble. "You can hear where she's coming from, but she's discovering and executing some beautiful ideas."
Spalding's latest idea is the ambitious new album "Chamber Music Society," due in August. Described by Spalding as reference to the definition of chamber music as "music among friends," the album lives up to its title with the backing of a string trio and elliptical, classical-informed structures, but pushes the concept into eclectic new corners.
Occasionally reminiscent of other meetings of classical and jazz found in recent recordings by Billy Childs and Brad Mehldau, the record is at times a darker, more introspective listen than her breezy debut. Some of the more adventurous flourishes include the contemplative opener "Little Fly," which sets a William Blake poem to music, and a searching, expressive take on Nina Simone's "Wild Is the Wind." It may not often sound familiar for fans who fell in love with her debut, but she resists the idea that it marks a musical departure.
"The whole premise behind the record 'Esperanza' was that this is an introductory glimpse of what my musical personality is," she said. "You don't know who I am, and I don't have enough years under my belt for me to expect anybody to know what I'm trying to do. I don't even really know," she adds with a laugh.
Grateful for having the freedom to explore her musical personality on record, Spalding's next project will be "Radio Music Society," an album planned for 2011 that will incorporate the funk, rock and hip-hop influences that lie close to her heart. Needless to say, any genre-based view of jazz as something that should be hemmed in by any stylistic rules does not apply in her world.
"You need every aspect of [jazz]. Sometimes I try to imagine if Weather Report hadn't happened, and if it just happened this year," she said. "There would be people like 'What is that? It doesn't belong.' ... And that doesn't matter. The artist should not be concerned at all about what people are saying [your music] is or isn't."
Looking ahead, Spalding would also like to introduce audiences to what for some may be the most daunting side of her musical personality: free jazz.
Able to draw from that tradition with the freewheeling Lovano ensemble and a recently formed trio with Genovese and drummer Francisco Mela, Spalding remembers offering a glimpse of her love for that music in a show at the El Rey last fall. Explaining to the audience that a "conversation" was about to take place in an introduction not all that dissimilar from her method with those eager 5-year-olds, Spalding was thrilled when the dance-ready crowd came right along with her for an extended play on "If That's True" from her debut album.
"I don't really believe that jazz has become elitist, but ... maybe people forget that not everybody is used to this music anymore," she said. "Maybe we do need to do a little extra work to make sure everybody knows what we're trying to do up here.
"Because it's very enjoyable," she adds.
Playboy Jazz Festival
Where: The Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles
Featuring: Sat.: Chick Corea Freedom Band, Kurt Elling, Pete Escovedo Orchestra, Marcus Miller Band, Trombone Shorty and more. Sun.: George Benson, Manhattan Transfer, Bobby Hutcherson, Esperanza Spalding, Robert Randolph & the Family Band and others.
When: 2:30 p.m. Sat.; 2 p.m. Sun.
Price: $20 to $150
Info: (310) 450-1173; http://www.playboyjazz.com