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Fred Hersch & Esperanza Spalding at Jazz Alley

Fred Hersch & Esperanza Spalding at Jazz Alley

Courtesy Lisa Hagen Glynn

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Fred Hersch & Esperanza Spalding
Jazz Alley
Seattle, WA
January 24, 2023

The musical union of pianist Fred Hersch and bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding at first evokes images of the iconic pianist playing duo with one of the prominent voices of twenty-first century jazz, a bassist of note and a formidable vocalist. But as is exemplified on their new recording, Alive at the Village Vanguard (Palmetto, 2023), the current tour features Hersch with Spalding focused completely on vocals. The duo works their collective way through standards with a sprinkling of Hersch originals.

Throughout his career and turbulent personal storyline, Hersch has come to be known for blending perfect harmonic balance with a beautifully engaged sense of modern melodicism. His trio playing is living evidence that innovation is not necessarily entwined with a change in style, instrumentation or mind-blowing modern discovery—the innovation is in the playing, in what is between the notes rather than the notes themselves. It is innovation within form, with the ultimate goal being simply the amplification of beauty itself.

Spalding for her part, has been on a meteoric rise since her 2011 Grammy for "Best New Artist," garnishing four more of the awards over the past 12 years. That sort of recognition aside, her evolution as an artist has traveled down many different paths, traversing her way regardless of genre designation. Her achievements are further amplified by the history of male domination in jazz and the music industry at large. There are so few that have broadly excelled in different areas of music as she has. She's a virtuosic bassist, a creative and balanced vocalist, and composer of intricately complex compositions. Her lyrics are free-verse poetry. She puts all of these attributes together into music that is accessible commercially, while being intuitively and innovatively abstract. She is one of the most important voices in twenty-first century jazz, and is setting an extreme and positive example for young women in music.

The duo's performance at Jazz Alley brought all of these collective attributes to life, from Hersch's undeniable virtuosity to Spalding's mind-blowing facility to improvise lyrics and melody with absolutely perfect pitch. Spalding sported a shirt that said, "Life Force," across the front, indeed a foresight into what was to be over the next ninety minutes. Before launching into Hersh's composition, "Dream of Monk," the pianist explained that the tune was conceived in a dream he had, in which he was captive in a cage alongside Thelonious Monk, he being caged separately as well. They were told that the first one to write a tune would be freed. As Hersch wrote furiously, Monk sat there completely unfazed, content in the moment. Hersch set an egg timer to complete the composition, to simulate the conditions of his dream. The result is a Monk-like melody and cadence. While the lyrics ask if Monk is insane, Spalding offered, "The world around him was insane, and he managed to make sense of it." While Monk's music is certainly "evidence" of his genius and yes, sanity, the duo rolled directly from Hersch's dream to Monk's classic, "Evidence." The tune as well revealed evidence of Hersch's luxurious, flowing playing that has marked him over the past decade. Spalding's work on these two tunes was in a way, very visual. Images of Monk were spun into the fabric of her performance, the strength of her musical character exposed in robust terms.

With this tour focusing mainly on jazz standards, the lyrics would have to become an object of concern for Spalding and her audience. Within the lush harmonies and beautiful melodies of these foundational pieces, lie lyrics that are to say the least, misogynistic. Bobby Troup's lyrics on the Neal Hefti tune, "Girl Talk" is a prime example, giving Spalding a lot to work with in casting a modern, progressive spotlight on the struggles of women in jazz and the gender bias and type-casting that have accompanied societal misogyny in modern western culture. After working through the first three lines, Spalding exacted justice on the piece.

"They like to chat about the dresses they will wear tonight. They chew the fat about their tresses and the neighbor's fight, inconsequential things that men don't really care to know, become essential things that women find so ap-pro-pos." Spalding sang sardonically, remarking to the audience between verses, "I hope this is bothering you." Then the capper line, "They all meow about the ups and downs of all their friends, the who, the how, the why, they dish the dirt, it never ends. The weaker sex, the 'speaker' sex we mortal males behold, but though we joke, we wouldn't trade you for a ton of gold." Spalding then asked the audience, "Do you want to take a drink and wash that out of your mouth?" She improvised lyrics, and emphasized to listen to women, a message delivered with wit, intelligence, humanity and humor. Her ability to recognize beauty in musical form all the while disdaining the lyrics is both beautiful and just.

Spalding's narrative before launching into Charlie Parker's "Little Suede Shoes" was wonderfully humorous, all the while with Hersch playing a riveting intro that slowly drew the audience into the full context of the tune. Spalding's remarks included pointing out that those little suede shoes Bird was referring to were for dancing, but that sometimes, "They forget to program and charge their shoes before they go dancing." Hersch took what began as an orbit around the melody, to a full launch above and beyond, only to return to the harmonic structure of the tune behind Spalding's stunning vocal improv.

The duo's launch into the Duke Ellington classic, "Prelude to a Kiss," was perhaps the most straight up stretch of the evening. Hersch's voicings echoed those of Ellington himself, with Spalding able to sing straight up lyrically, bringing warmth, honesty and deep emotion to this, one of the great ballads in jazz. "Oh how my love song so gently cries, for the tenderness within your eyes, my love is a prelude that never dies, a prelude to a kiss," she sang, eyes closed, deeply immersed in the beauty of Ellington's beautiful prose. The expression on her face was the same during Hersch's soloing all evening, giving herself completely to the beauty of the moment. There was a oneness between her lyrical melodicism and Hersch's lyrical instrumental work on piano.

The pair ended the set with the Egberto Gismonti piece, "Loro." Spalding's acrobatic vocal work was prime on display, denoting extraordinary intonation and cadence. The evening was done after seventy five minutes, with the duo leaving the stage to a standing ovation that could only lead to an encore—which it did.

Looking back to the 1930 standard, "Body and Soul," Spalding once again was placed directly in the middle of questionable lyrics, surrounded by the dynamic harmony and classic melody of one of jazz's most popular tunes. Hersch used the song as a canvas for spontaneous composition, while Spalding had some spontaneous composing of her own to do lyrically. Diving into the tag of the melody, she sang, "It looks like the ending, unless I could have one more chance to prove, dear. My life a wreck you're making, you know I'm yours for just the taking, I'd gladly surrender myself to you body and soul," then shaking her head in disbelief, exclaiming, "Whooooooooooa!"

Dimitriou's Jazz Alley is enjoying a run that now exceeds 40 years, rare for a jazz establishment. The four hundred seat house sold out all three shows for the duo, with a long line outside after downbeat waiting for seats to possibly open up. It is a statement of the status of both of these artists for sure, with Hersch's appearances in Seattle being few and far between. But there is the factor of Northwest pride that draws as well, as is common in Seattle and in Portland, Spalding's hometown and part-time residence in the here and now. This young classical prodigy from Hillsboro has grown into a jazz artist of note, but most importantly, as a messenger of hope for the music of the new century. Her musical openness and honesty is expressed whether deeply embedded in the practice of jazz music, or whether that attachment to jazz lies more on the perimeter of what she is endeavoring in terms of genre.

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