Esperanza Spalding felt stressed the nights she and Fred Hersch were performing at the Village Vanguard in New York City. That was during 19-21 October 2018, well before the current COVID-19 pandemic. According to the promotional materials, the four-time Grammy Award-winning vocalist/bassist/composer said she was struggling with family issues, work (she was beginning a teaching position at Harvard University), and artistic concerns. She and saxophonist Wayne Shorter were writing an opera.
“I was miserable every day when I got to the Vanguard, so I had to decide to plug into the capacity for this music to heal. I wanted to emanate something positive even though I was feeling so horrible,” Spalding wrote. Meanwhile, 15-time Grammy nominee pianist Hersch felt even worse. His body ached, and he had to use crutches to walk. He was scheduled for hip replacement surgery right after the shows. Like Spalding, he used the occasion as a way of controlling his pain and transforming it into joy. Creative artists can do this and lift the spirits of those around them.
Spalding and Hersch have decided to take their act one step further. They are releasing a five-song EP from the session to benefit musicians impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The release, Live at the Village Vanguard, will raise funds for the Jazz Foundation of America and be available exclusively through Bandcamp only through the month of June. The duo know that the current situation has been a tough one for jazz musicians as tours and performances have been canceled with no clearly defined resolution in sight.
The recordings feature a live mix with no edits, with audience applause and the performers’ ad-libs presented as they happened. Spalding interacts with the crowd, charmingly poking fun at the datedness of the language of the Gershwins’ “But Not for Me” (re: “heigh-ho”, “alackaday”) and comically addressing the sexism (and secret feminism) of Neal Hefti and Bobby Troup’s “Girl Talk”. She usually sings the lyrics straight before launching into scatting. Hersch frequently takes off instrumentally and extemporizes from the very beginning or right after Spalding has stopped singing the introductory verse. That makes the material consistently fresh.
The two musicians frequently go off on tangents, taking long solos as a way of prodding each other to improvise continuously before getting back to the main theme. That works especially well on Hersch’s original song in tribute to Thelonious Monk, “Dream of Monk” and Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonti’s “Loro”. It doesn’t matter who begins a song, whether it is Spalding’s singing or Hersch’s riffing, the two are dynamically connected to each other’s vibe. There is a pleasant fearlessness to the whole affair. No one seems concerned about hitting a sour note or heading in the wrong direction. This would be impossible because all avenues are imaginatively open. The pair rely on their wits and musical intelligence to always inventively move forward.
Live at the Village Vanguard provides evidence of two artists having a good time in front of a friendly, intimate audience. At one point, Spalding even says, “god bless you” in response to someone in the crowd who sneezed. There’s something light-hearted about the gig despite the intensity of the performances. This new release raises money for a good cause, which seems appropriate to the show’s original ambiance. It’s only available until the end of June, so get it while you can.