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Fred Hersch & Esperanza Spalding: Alive at the Village Vanguard

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Fred Hersch & Esperanza Spalding: Alive at the Village Vanguard
Is it possible that we underestimate Esperanza Spalding? That would be quite a trick for an artist who has hardly been out of the spotlight since leapfrogging a couple of nobodies named Drake and Justin Bieber to take the Grammy award for Best New Artist in 2011. With a recent resume that includes a high-profile teaching position at Harvard (now ended), a collaboration with preeminent jazz composer Wayne Shorter on the opera "Iphigenia" and a fifth Grammy for 2022's Songwrights Apothecary Lab (Concord), spalding, who renders her name in lowercase letters, is an artist whom the spotlight invariably finds.

Yet even a musician as curious, comprehensive and supremely competent as spalding can find new ways to leave us in wonder, asking, How did she do that?

Welcome to Alive at the Village Vanguard, a collaboration with pianist Fred Hersch that makes an exalted level of mastery seem like child's play.

And while we're at it, isn't it time we gave Fred Hersch his flowers? Like spalding, Hersch is a composer, author and teacher of singular gifts. As a player, he is solidly in the jazz tradition but has extended at its frontiers with such visionary recorded projects as Leaves of Grass (Palmetto Records, 2005), a setting of Walt Whitman poems for vocalists and ensemble, and Breath By Breath (Palmetto Records, 2022), a meditation on the Buddhist concept of refuge for jazz trio and string quartet. Hersch's innovation at the piano and the composer's table is settled law, but his greatest talent—and spalding's too—might be as a collaborator.

Alive at the Village Vanguard offers proof from the first notes of "But Not For Me," a song so thoroughly dissected by jazz singers and instrumentalists that it should have little left to reveal. By choosing this chestnut, and by animating it with their soaring, dancing musical conversation, Hersch and Spalding set a challenge for themselves and vault over it. With imaginative accompaniment from Hersch, spalding delivers it without sentimentality. But how to put across Ira Gershwin's now-doubly archaic lyrical archaisms ("Heigh-ho, alas and also lack-a-day") with a straight face? Her answer: by not keeping a straight face. Rather, spalding pokes gentle, self-deprecating fun at them in the first of many humorous anecdotes, riffs and asides. Having dispensed with that, she goes on to deliver a dazzling improvisation on the well-worn material before passing the baton to Hersch.

That's the way it goes for eight cuts and 68 minutes: stunning vocals followed by a mesmerizing piano solo with the two coming together to take it out. It's a familiar formula, but Hersch and spalding fill it with a jewel box of revelations.

Take the simple little clavé that Hersch taps out on a choked B-flat to begin "Little Suede Shoes" or spalding's racing Brazilian scat on Egberto Gismonti's "Loro," tossed off with dazzling speed and accuracy. Catching her breath between phrases, she tells the audience, "That's how birds talk," and then she becomes a bird, leaping, pirouetting and diving in an airborne chase with Hersch that the two sustain for nine-and-a-half minutes.

These virtuoso turns are neck-snapping, but Hersch is a poet at heart and he finds the album's center of gravity in two ballads.

"Some Other Time," is not the familiar Bernstein composition, but a Frank Sinatra vehicle by Cahn and Styne from a forgotten 1944 movie. Hersch loves the tune (he recorded it on his 2003 Palmetto debut Live at the Village Vanguard) and he lays out a velvet drape of rhapsodic poetry for spalding to wrap herself in. She swells the Tin Pan Alley lyrics with lovestruck tenderness, nailing the intervallic leaps in the bridge and somehow ends Sinatra's moony reverie with a gentle but firm assertion of female sexual agency: "Not some other time, but right. Now."

And then there's Hersch's poignant torch song "A Wish" with lyrics by Norma Winstone sung with heartbreaking restraint and dignity. It's the kind of benediction that more artists are choosing to close their recordings, and it's pure magic.

That kind of magic is all over Alive at the Village Vanguard, which was recorded by James Farber with a presence and atmosphere, both intimate and electrifying that is a summary description of the album itself.

Every year, Fred Hersch releases an understatedly beautiful record in January that somehow gets lost when the year end polls are tallied. That's not likely to happen with Alive at the Village Vanguard. This is a recording that puts a marker down for jazz at the summit, and there's no underestimating it.

Track Listing

But Not For Me; Dream of Monk; Little Suede Shoes; Girl Talk; Evidence; Some Other Time; Loro; A Wish.

Personnel

Album information

Title: Alive at the Village Vanguard | Year Released: 2023 | Record Label: Palmetto Records


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