LP review

Esperanza Spalding, Fred Hersch – “Live at The Village Vanguard” (Rough Mix EP/ Benefit Recording for the Jazz Foundation of America)

Esperanza Spalding, Fred Hersch – Live at The Village Vanguard
(Rough Mix EP/ Benefit Recording for the Jazz Foundation of America. Review by Alison Bentley)

A fleeting chance to share an intimate gig with Fred Hersch on piano and Esperanza Spalding, here on vocals alone, without her bass. They call it an EP, but it’s an album-length recording, only available for purchase till the end of June. The five generous, contrasting tracks are recorded with very little reverb, so you feel as if they’re playing at a jazz club in your living room.

Gershwin’s But Not for Me opens with Hersch’s elegant swing. Spalding’s timbre is like Billie Holiday but there’s no world-weariness here – just joie de vivre. She engages the audience with in-song banter about the lyrics with whimsical asides – she’s moving on quickly from this lost love. Her light, supple voice soars in high scat, as boppily inventive as John Hendricks or Eddie Jefferson. Spalding plays a number of instruments and has taught music at Berklee College and at Harvard, but she wears her musical knowledge lightly, singing with Ella’s sense of fun. She’s an inclusive musician – it’s as if she’s found these notes and wants to share them with us. Hersch’s solo uses the whole keyboard, with broken rhythms that somehow imply swing. At times he strikes a very high note repeatedly like a ride cymbal, while the left hand lurks down in the lowest notes.

Dream of Monk sounds like a long-lost Monk tune but words and music are by Hersch. It’s from his extraordinary 2011 My Coma Dreams sequence, which recounts his experience of being put into an induced coma to help recovery from illness – and his remembered dreams. It’s a pleasure to hear the duo responding intuitively to each other, improvising freely. Hersch’s solo has many phases like a dream, from jagged intervals all over the keyboard, to relaxed stride, to deep bass punches. He can move from massive chords to delicate swing in a heartbeat.

In Neal Hefti’s Girl Talk, Spalding takes Bobby Troup’s lyrics and turns them on their head, in a witty intro, part spoken, part vocalese over impeccable swing. “What may look mundane on the surface is not,” she says, as women’s conversations solve “the world’s ailments one conversation at a time”. I won’t give too much away. She sings with a bluesy insouciance that recalls Sheila Jordan, or a less-understated Blossom Dearie singing Dave Frishberg.

The ballad Some Other Time brings pathos to the set. It’s not the Bernstein song, but a lesser-known one by Cahn and Styne, and Spalding negotiates its octave swoops breathily and beautifully. The song’s theme is similar to But Not for Me, but sung more introvertedly. “I could resist you, some other time, not now.”

Egberto Gismonti’s Loro is a tongue twisting wordless piece, sung at quadruple speed with a joyful breeziness and impressive accuracy, The powerful Latin groove is accentuated by piano flourishes as they move into a freer section. Hersch moves back and forth into the tune, as if it’s going in and out of focus, from incredible rhythmic strength to subtle sparseness.

“There needs to be love- and danger – in the music always,” Hersch has said. The EP has been released to help “members of the jazz community impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic”, and it’s sung and played from the heart. There are only a few days left. Don’t miss it.

Esperanza Spalding & Fred Hersch: Live at the Village Vanguard – Rough Mix EP  is available from Bandcamp HERE , but ONLY UNTIL 30 JUNE 2020. “Everyone involved in the project is donating his or her time and talents.”

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