LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD / G. & I. GERSHWIN: But Not for Me. HERSCH: Dream of Monk. TROUP-HEFTI: Girl Talk. CAHN-STYNE: Some Other Time. GISMONTI: Loro / Esperanza Spalding, voc; Fred Hersch, pno / private label EP, available only as a download at Bandcamp for the month of June 2020 (minimum donation $17). (live: New York, October 19-21, 2018)
This intriguing set of five vocal and piano duos, being released to benefit the Jazz Foundation of America and the organization’s efforts to assist members of the jazz community impacted by the Coronavirus, intrigued me as soon as I listened to But Not for Me. Hersch plays here in a loose, straightforward style that I found very attractive, and Spalding, thank goodness, is a jazz singer who sings “out” with the voice instead of whispering her lyrics in a lounge style.
This was my first exposure to Spalding, who has apparently been around for more than a decade. As a bassist-singer, she has performed in a number of different venues and styles from funk to Latin to a sort of soft, classicalized style (a YouTube video of Little Fly). Although she sang On the Sunny Side of the Street at a White House concert in 2016, she normally stays away from standards. But according to the publicity sheet accompanying this release, she so enjoyed working with Hersch that she gave herself over completely to others’ tunes. “Playing with Fred feels like we’re in a sandbox,” Spalding says. “He takes his devotion to the music as serious as life and death, but once we start playing, it’s just fun. I like to live on the edge in my music, but I find myself trying things that I usually wouldn’t when I play with him, finding new spaces to explore.”
Although a jazz EP with only five songs, the program runs more than 46 minutes, which is pretty near the length of many a “regular” jazz CD. This is because Spalding and Hersch really play out these songs, with two of them running about 7 ½ minutes, two at 9 ½ and Girl Talk running about 12.
What I liked most about Spalding’s singing was its completely natural and artless delivery. Whether just singing the melody straight, bending the notes or scatting, she almost sounds as if she is singing for one person in the audience at a time. It’s a feeling of intimacy that you almost never hear from jazz singers past or present. The only other female singers I’ve heard who could emulate this kind of intimacy were a little-known 1930s singer named Jeanne Burns and the legendary Billie Holiday, but the way Spalding sings is entirely her own and owes nothing to any other jazz singers I’ve heard except in terms of her scatting. At times, particularly in her high range, the voice thins out; it sounds as if she is having trouble reaching her upper notes; but again, everything is so well integrated—music, words and mood—that you just absorb the experience without analyzing it too much.
Yet with that being said, there’s an almost magical, intimate interplay between Spalding and Hersch on Dream of Monk that defies description. Hersch begins playing witty, pointillistic figures on the piano while Spalding scats around the edges and in between the notes that Hersch is laying down, sometimes following the beat and at other times singing notes between beats.
Spalding talks at the beginning of Girl Talk about a scene in Mission: Impossible where “some guy is saying one thing but he really means another thing,” and then relates it to the lyrics of Girl Talk. Yet as a girl, I think that only a small percentage of girls and women actually mean something different when they’re talking about dresses and gossip. Most of those I know mean exactly that and nothing else. But apparently Spalding means something else when she talks about those things. By leaning into the rhythm of the songs more and improvising more sparingly, Hersch creates a sort of rhythmic-polyphonic web of sonic strands that supports Spalding’s singing as a safety net protects a high-wire walker.
The only song I really didn’t care for was Some Other Time, a minor Sammy Cahn-Jule Styne tune that didn’t have much going for it either in terms of the music or the lyrics. Not too surprisingly, Hersch couldn’t make much of it, either. Spalding tried her best to liven it up but, as the saying goes, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The program ends with Loro, a song by Egberto Gismonti which they somehow, miraculously, convert from a Latin tune to a fast-bop scat number. In his long midpoint solo, Hersch plays one of the most fascinating solos of his career, bouncing opposing rhythms and meters (the left hand generally lags behind the right by a fraction of a beat), later changing the pulse to make it more Latin-sounding. It’s absolutely marvelous and, somehow or other, they manage to stretch it out more than 9 ½ minutes.
This is a simply marvelous album, quite aside from the fundraising aspect. You really need to acquire it while it’s available.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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