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Esperanza Spalding uses fashion to turn up the volume on her music

The Grammy-winning bassist Esperanza Spalding has been called an “It Girl” by Vogue magazine. She has been featured in Teen Vogue and has shopped for vintage clothing while being trailed by a reporter. A style blog chronicles her socially conscious fashion choices. She has walked red carpets, played at the White House and performed at the request of President Barack Obama at the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize Concert, a celebration that required three different evening gowns.

Fashion has become integral to Spalding’s relationship with the public, even though it was not her personal passion and it was not part of her coming-of-age story. That tale centers around growing up as a musical savant amid challenging circumstances in Portland, Ore.

And now, fashion has become a storytelling tool and a way for her to exert control over her own narrative.

“Since I was never concerned with dressing up and looking fabulous, when I realized it was going to be part of my life, I wanted to find a way to make it interesting to me,” Spalding told the Washington Post. Doing so has meant choosing costumes that expand on her repertoire, that build meaningful context around her music and that define her as an idiosyncratic musician with a distinctively cool point-of-view.

Spalding is not a brand name-wearing cover girl. Her clothes are off-beat and odd. Rarely are they blandly beautiful. They are almost always intriguing.

“I like to tinker with meaning and metaphor and intention,” she said.

Spalding, 30, is performing in the guise of “Emily” – her middle name – as part of her D+Evolution Tour. “I didn’t use the Emily for the last 15 years,” Spalding said. Using it now has been “like opening up that (childhood) space again.”

“I look at it like going back and remembering the dreams of your youth,” she said – noting that she’s paraphrasing jazzman Wayne Shorter, with whom she has collaborated. “I am doing everything I want to do, don’t get me wrong.” But Spalding’s music career began in her teens; there were childhood notions “I never really explored,” she said.

While Spalding is known for her billowing afro and her eccentric glamour, “Emily” is defined by her teal-colored schoolgirl spectacles and the ropelike twists that trail down her back. Emily’s clothes are vaguely dowdy and a little bit old-fashioned. They would look at home being marched down a Prada runway. Emily is a stylized version of a young Spalding, one who is depicted in an old photograph on Spalding’s Tumblr page – a gap-tooth kid with red glasses, a bright green cardigan and a head full of tiny, squiggly braids.

Spalding is loathe to describe Emily as a character or the clothes that she wears as costumes. And yet, aren’t they costumes if you’re wearing them on stage in the middle of a performance? “Kind of. I mean no. Gosh. I guess if you were to see a play on the street or in a park and it took you through a series of events over the course of the year, I think you won’t notice so much what they’re wearing,” Spalding said. “I don’t want people to expect a full stage production.”

She is hoping that the person, the clothes, the music and the performance all merge into a singular, improvisational experience that is both melodic and visual. She would be very happy if critics would refrain from attempting to give the moment a name, if people would stop attempting to categorize the work. “You don’t have to understand the meaning,” she said, a notion that’s highly unsettling within a culture that prefers labels to ambiguities and doesn’t like its artists to go rogue.

Like a lot of jazz artists, Spalding has long given consideration to her stage persona. Jazz has a history of men in elegant suits and women in sophisticated evening gowns. Jazz – see Miles Davis or Thelonius Monk – gave popular culture hipster cool. It romanticized broken, suffering beauties such as Billie Holiday.

Spalding expands on that style tradition. In the past, she has used fashion to tweak the staid image of classical musicians and underscore her desire to spark a musical shift. With the CD “Chamber Music Society,” “I wanted to assume the persona of a buttoned-up person coming home and having a conversation musically.” So there she was in her afro and a white shirt – buttoned up – under a black vest.

When she performed for Sting at the Kennedy Center Honors, she wanted her dress to speak to his work but also her own interpretation of it. She sang his moody jazz elegy “Fragile.” And as her tiny hands pulled on the strings of her massive upright bass, she made a delicate, aesthetic nod to his “Canary in a Coalmine.” The Honors performance “was about reminding us that we’re very fragile, like a canary in a coal mine,” Spalding said. She sang as the canary in a “yellow dress, but it was glamorous and high end” because the Honors are held within the grand confines of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

And in a video portrait created by the artist Bo Gehring, in which a camera moves slowly, at hyper-close-up range, above her prone body, she wears a shimmering dress that calls to mind a celestial quilt. “That dress was like a landscape,” Spalding said. “Everything I was wearing was sustainable – recycled wood, vegan leather.”

In these performances and portraits, there were no notes expounding on Spalding’s clothing choice. But that’s OK. “You can sense when there’s something behind anything, even if you don’t know what it is.”

Spalding doesn’t expect her audience to intuit the full meaning in Emily’s D+Evolution. She’s still sorting it all out herself, with early performances functioning a bit like workshops, she said.

Ultimately, Spalding – the musician – is hoping that fashion will help audiences experience something wholly new: “I hope people will be able to forget that we’re playing music.”