"Jazz has been evolving, it's just that most cats are looking in the wrong places for it," says 23-year-old bass sensation Esperanza Spalding.

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“Jazz has been evolving, it’s just that most cats are looking in the wrong places for it,” says 23-year-old bass sensation Esperanza Spalding.

Recently signed to the Telarc label, with a new album due in May, Spalding performs at 7 p.m. Friday on Jazz in January at Experience Music Project. (Find full schedule information on page D2.)

Spalding — whose first name, significantly, means “hope” — grew up in Portland. She’s a feisty original who does, indeed, offer hope for the future of jazz.

Street-smart, cheeky, fast-talking and funny — her patter is peppered with phrases like “you dig?” and “it’s not that killin,’ ” without ever sounding the least bit put on — Spalding was hired at 21 to teach at the Berklee College in Boston after she graduated from the music school. She is an irresistible performer. She sings and plays bass at the same time and does a sort of interpretive dance as she plays. Though she had a rough time coming up, she’s gotten some extraordinary breaks at just the right moments. Her analysis of what’s going on in jazz today is perceptive.

Unlike many young jazzers, Spalding didn’t play in high-school jazz band but was the daughter of a struggling single mom who home-schooled her until she was 15.

“I had a lot of time to myself,” she recalls, speaking by telephone from her home in Jersey City, N.J., after a European tour. “We had a piano in the house, and I’d sit around all day playing. When I was 8, my mother took an interest in guitar. I’d go to her classes with her, and I’d come home and play everything her teacher had been trying to show her, on the piano.”

At 15, Spalding was introduced to the bass when she got a scholarship to the Northwest Academy. Finding school “easy — and boring,” she dropped out, but she continued studying bass. Soon, she was recruited into several blues and jazz groups, as well as the hip-hop outfit Black Science Tribe. She cofounded a jazz/rock band, Noise For Pretend, which released two albums on the indie-rock label Hush.

Ever eager for knowledge, Spalding got her GED and enrolled at Portland State University, where her improvisation instructor, pianist Darrell Grant, spotted her talent and encouraged her to go to Berklee.

“She was only 17, and yet she was getting this big sound on the bass,” Grant recalls. “And she had this really swinging, powerful feel.”

Spalding got a full scholarship to Berklee but found the competitive atmosphere (and meager living expenses) overwhelming. Again, an influential mentor intervened.

“I was kind of floating around, not really knowing if I was any good,” Spalding says. “I told Pat Metheny [who was directing a special project she was part of] ‘I’m about to cut out with this music junk,’ and he said, ‘Look, I’m not saying you’re the greatest musician I’ve ever seen, but you have the X Factor.’ That was exactly what I needed to hear to stay in this game.”

It didn’t hurt that Spalding also got a call from vocalist Patti Austin, whose tour helped Spalding’s pocket book as well as her self-esteem. Since then, word has gotten out. Joe Lovano, Lee Konitz, Stanley Clarke and Herbie Hancock all have hired her. Her schedule is so packed she is taking a semester off from teaching.

Spalding’s style is unique. When she scat-sings over her plump, fluid bass lines it’s as if she were thinking out loud, a habit she says she developed while practicing difficult tunes. Her singing — sometimes with words — brings a sprightly, happy feel to the music all its own.

Though she has the utmost respect for tradition, she feels young musicians who work only in older styles are “like living fossils.”

“When you think about Brooklyn in the ’40s,” she says, “all these cats came from all kind of crazy walks of life and were in the midst of this heaving, breathing bubble of social change — white and black — and they were speaking to other people who were going through that. But it was done by the originators, and they did it better.

“There are cats like Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny who are masters and have brought it up to date. And then there is another side of jazz — it’s just that we don’t call it jazz anymore. It might be hip-hop, or R&B, or neo-soul.”

Spalding says her new album, with more vocals, is more in that last vein.

“The music has a lot of groove, a funky, neo-soul vibe, but with the depth and song form and solos so you can hear the traditions of jazz.”

Her current trio — Leo Genovese, piano, and Otis Brown, drums — does not play the tunes from the first album, so her performance at EMP should be full of surprises.

Jazz in January has scaled down this year from its usual month to one weekend, a wise decision, given poor attendance the past couple of years.

In keeping with EMP’s new exhibit, “American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music,” the program has a Latin theme.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com