Palmetto Records PM2208CD
Esperanza Spalding is a genre-defying musician with a strong foundation in jazz. Fred Hersch is a pianist and composer with an extensive discography as leader and sideman. His playing shows great sensitivity and beauty, and he brings a unique interpretive touch to the work of other composers. He asked Spalding to join him at the Village Vanguard for four nights in October 2018. He assumed she would be playing bass, but instead Spalding chose to focus on singing, with Hersch accompanying.
Alive at the Village Vanguard gathers eight songs from the duo’s appearances at the venerable jazz club. Hersch has played in support of many jazz singers, including Chris Conner and Kurt Elling. He and Spalding chose an interesting mix of standards, jazz compositions, and Hersch’s own songs. The resulting variety showcases both musicians to great effect.
The Gershwin brothers’ “But Not for Me” shows how intuitively Spalding and Hersch responded to each other. Hersch sets a cheerful, lively tone in his opening chords, and Spalding sings with ease, gracefully and effortlessly moving through the melody and gliding into the high notes. She extemporaneously speaks and sings about the lyrics of the nearly 100-year-old song (“And then some words I don’t really understand because it’s like old English ‘hi-ho, alas, and lack-a-day’”) without losing the thread of the song or undermining it. Spalding has a beautiful interlude of scat singing, which leads into a solo by Hersch that is full of exciting and gorgeous variations on the melody.
I was surprised to see “Girl Talk” listed among the songs Spalding and Hersch performed. The Neal Hefti / Bobby Troup song, written for the 1965 film Harlow, has a great melody and hook, but its lyrics are problematic at this distance. Michael Feinstein described it as “the last great male chauvinistic song written in the ’60s.” Spalding’s spoken introduction sets up an opportunity for turning the song into a statement of feminist empowerment. The duo spin the song out for 12 minutes, with Spalding riffing on the lyrics and Hersch providing smart, witty accompaniment. His solo is expansive, inventive, and as waggish as Spalding’s playful turn with the lyrics.
Spalding sings a wordless version of Charlie Parker’s “Little Suede Shoes,” injecting a sung monologue filled with humor. She scat-sings Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence,” and Hersch gets to really shine on the track, negotiating Monk’s difficult chord changes and melodic ideas in his own style. Spalding sings “A Wish,” a tune Hersch wrote with singer Norma Winstone, with delicacy and restraint, and Hersch’s solo is understated and moving.
These two musicians were clearly in the moment and responded to each other with a sensitivity that delights throughout Alive at the Village Vanguard. Hersch punctuates Spalding’s asides and comments with his own musical responses, and both follow shifts in mood on the part of one or the other with such precision it’s clear that they were often thinking as one.
Given that Fred Hersch is something of an audiophile, it’s not surprising that Alive at the Village Vanguard sounds terrific. James Farber engineered the recording, with help from Tyler McDiarmid, who mixed it, and Geoffrey Countryman. Nate Wood mastered the recording, which captures the ambiance of the Village Vanguard and conveys every nuance of Spalding’s voice and Hersch’s piano. I felt as if I were sitting at a plum table in front of the stage.
Given that Fred Hersch and Esperanza Spalding appeared at the Vanguard for four nights during this run, there may be other songs to hear from them. Or, perhaps, the duo will record some more performances during their current tour. Either way, I’d like to hear more.
. . . Joseph Taylor