…an unmissable and joyous experience.

Palmetto Records PM2208CD

Fred Hersch (piano); esperanza spalding (voice)

Recorded at the Village Vanguard, NYC October 19-21, 2018

Welcome to the Village Vanguard to witness an absolutely phenomenal meeting of musical minds. And that is exactly what this remarkable album feels like. A front row seat in this iconic venue listening to two virtuoso musicians playfully exploring, and taking fun filled liberties at times, with a handful of standards and a couple of original tunes by Hersch, and one by Egberto Gismonti.

Over the last thirty years or so Fred Hersch has time after time demonstrated his mastery of the piano, and as an improviser a constant flow of ideas and ability to reinvent himself to play in any musical setting. He is also a composer of some note, and his pieces are always more than mere tunes from which to launch his improvisations.

Bassist, vocalist and composer esperanza spalding also needs no introduction. She too is a fiercely independent musician, who in her own projects always looks to follow her own original path. These days, spalding rarely sings standards, and many will be surprised at the interpretations of these familiar songs, and the charm, wit and emotional connection that the singer displays throughout this recording.

From their first meeting back in 2013 it was apparent that the two musicians had much in common and although they perform far too infrequently together, when they take the stage together it sounds as if they have rarely been apart. When they do meet up to play live, they take to the stage with no arrangements or set list.

The dangers inherent in such a tactic hold no fear for the duo and the music presented here is the genuine article. Spontaneous as it is possible to get while remaining true to the original concept of the composer, Hersch and spalding have fun with the music and invite you to participate in the joy of the moment with them.

Opening with the Gershwin’s ‘But Not For Me’ one is immediately struck by the freedom with which the two musicians operate in. Hersch’s piano is immediately probing and inquisitive as to see just how far he can take the music. spalding’s  timing and phrasing is as bold and adventuress as the pianist, and her vocal range is extraordinary encompassing some astonishing leaps of register.

Also, having a little fun with the audience is the order of the day for esperanza, and this she does with great amusement when questioning the old English terminology of the Gershwin lyrics as well as raising an eyebrow at the chauvinistic words to ‘Girl Talk’ by Neal Hefti and Bobby Troup.

The duo display their bebop chops on their exemplary take on Charlie Parker’s ‘Little Suede Shoes’ and a delightfully quirky ‘Evidence’ by Thelonious Monk with some inventive scatting from spalding.

In a nicely judged change of pace, the ballads are handled with a sensitivity and reverence that has the audience spellbound. First up is ‘Some Other Time’ by Cahn and Styne which is beautifully set up by Hersch for spalding’s exquisite entry, and equally as fine is the closing ‘A Wish’ penned by Hersch with lyrics by Norma Winstone. Originally recorded for Songs & Lullabies and released in 2003 by Fred Hersch and Norma Winstone, this is another lovely melody handled with extreme good taste and packed with emotion.

For sheer exuberance and the joy of live performance, there is no better example that Gismonti’s composition, ‘Loro’. spalding is able to inject some humour into the song before launching into an astonishing wordless vocal and even managing to extend her blessing in response to a sneeze from a member of the audience. As the piece gathers momentum, Hersch builds up his piano into a swell of peaks and troughs that the vocalist negotiates with much skill and solid invention.

This is at times seat of your pants improvising from the duo, yet this is just one of the elements that make this performance from Fred Hersch and esperanza spalding an unmissable and joyous experience.

Reviewed by Nick Lea