G. & I. GERSHWIN: But Not for Me. HERSCH: Dream of Monk. PARKER: Little Suede Shoes. HEFTI-TROUP: Girl Talk. MONK: Evidence. CAHN-STYNE: Some Other Time. GISMONTI: Loro. WINSTONE-HERSCH: A Wish / esperanza spalding, voc; Fred Hersch, pno / Palmetto Records PM2208CD (live: New York, October 19-21, 2018)
Although pianist Fred Hersch claims Thelonious Monk as an influence, as indicated here by the presence of Monk’s own piece Evidence and Hersch’s tribute piece Dream of Monk, his playing, to my ears, is more frequently an imitation of Bill Evans. Here, however, on this CD scheduled for release on January 9, he indulges in a more swinging style although containing some fascinating features borrowed from Monk and even Art Tatum while esperanza spalding, who once spelled her name normally but now insists on all lower case (probably a big fan of e.e. cummings), provides the vocals. spalding is primarily a jazz bassist, and a very good one, who sings, not a singer who occasionally plays bass, thus she phrases and improvises like a jazz musician despite not having a particularly attractive vocal timbre.
The publicity blurb for this disc makes a big to-do about spalding being a “visionary” jazz vocalist. Aside from the fact that she can swing and improvise, as could Anita O’Day, Sheila Jordan, Betty Carter, Carmen McRae and several others, I don’t hear anything in her delivery that qualifies as “visionary.” Perhaps she, or someone else, can enlighten me as to what she is visualizing. It is true that she rarely sings standards as she does here, but then again Carter and McRae rarely did, either, and both O’Day and Jordan were famous for being able to transform standards into something quite extraordinary. But as I say, she can swing and improvise and at least she doesn’t sound like one of these wispy “come hither” lounge lizards who pass for female jazz singers nowadays.
Both spalding and Hersch do a nice job of extending some of the phrases of these tunes in a very jazzy way. And despite the fact that spalding doesn’t have that much of a voice, her energetic delivery tends to energize Hersch’s playing Thus they complement each other musically in a way that is most engaging. A little past the halfway mark in But Not for Me, after spalding concludes her first vocal and turns the stage over to Hersch, there is applause. It sounds like maybe five people clapping. Silly me, I thought the Village Vanguard was still a top spot for jazz talent in New York. Apparently not, at least on this evening. But Hersch’s solo is quite a nice one, using a slowed-down, modified version of Art Tatum’s old trick of elongating the time value of notes within an improvised chorus. Close to 12 people applaud his solo before spalding re-enters. All 17 of the attendees applaud at the end of the song.
Dream of Monk is a pretty nice tune and a good tribute to the iconoclastic pianist-composer, yet although Hersch claims Monk as an influence on his playing he really come close to Thelonious’ highly rhythmic and almost asymmetric manner of playing the keyboard (which, I’ve always said, was just as difficult in its own way to replicate as Tatum’s more florid style). spalding provides a nice improvised scat chorus, clearly drawing on her long experience as a fine jazz bassist. The second Hersch solo on this track shows him playing some nice two-handed counterpoint which, although not something Monk himself did, is pretty nifty to hear.
Charlie Parker’s Little Suede Shoes opens with Hersch playing the inside string of a low Bb on his piano while spalding scats in a lively, almost Latinesque manner. I did feel, however, that this track went on a bit too long and said rather too little.
Girl Talk by Neal Hefti and Bobby Troup is up next. spalding turns this into a “deeper meaning” song about decoding the way women talk to each other…well, at least upper middle class women who have money and leisure time and don’t have to work double-shift grunge jobs. It’s kind of cute. By the time she finishes, the Vanguard audience seems to have grown to about 35 people. More respectable, to be sure.
Monk’s Evidence is a really quirky tune and performance, with spalding singing around the edges of the song with some nifty half-voice scatting. Hersch plays one of his finest solos of the set on this one, and in fact dominates the performance, although in the last chorus singer and pianist engage in a bit of cat-and-mouse musical teasing. Jule Styne’s Some Other Time, on the other hand, is a pretty ordinary ballad of the type one heard by the truckload in the 1940s and ‘50s, and although it’s pleasant it didn’t do much for me.
I haven’t a clue who Gismonti was or what Loro is supposed to be about, but it’s a pleasant tune with a peppy Latin beat to it (but apparently no lyrics since spalding just scats to it). They do what they can with it, which makes it entertaining at least. Hersch’s solo is another gem, thankfully, creating some nice two-handed counterpoint and introducing some nice changes into the fairly simple tune. The set ends with another ballad, A Wish.
This is a very nice little CD that put a smile on my face. The microphone placement is close-up and personal, almost making it sound as if Hersch and spalding were right in your living room. For me, it sure beats listening to all that Christmas music.
—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley
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