Howard Wershil | 23 JAN 2023
I don’t claim to be a jazz expert. I do enjoy listening to a very wide variety of music genres, including jazz.
Many years ago, my go-to jazz heroes included Ornette Coleman, McCoy Tyner, Weather Report, and many jazz artists lovingly housed on the Blue Note recording label, which remains active to this day. This last source – this last genre within a genre – would often be my arrival point for enjoying a listening experience that relaxes, enlightens, uplifts, and soothes. Of course, I would also frequently listen to NPR’s Piano Jazz, hosted by jazz great Marian McPartland. Weren’t we all?
But that was then. Absence from the world of jazz for a lengthy amount of time creates blurriness. Erasures in the memory. Gaps in connectivity. A vacuum in one’s heart and soul. It motivates me to provide a review of this recent experience from ostensibly fresh ears, those of possibly some auditory virgin, hearing jazz for the very first time.
And what a first time it was! To be (re-)introduced to the idiom by such premiere performers is a most miraculous privilege. Both Fred Hersch and Esperanza Spalding sport accolades that attest to their status as superior musicians.
Veteran jazz musician Fred Hersch, declared a “living legend” by The New Yorker, has been nominated for a Grammy Award fifteen times, while Esperanza Spalding, still relatively early in her career, has already won six Grammy Awards for her vocal excellence, and has been cited by NPR as the 21st century’s first jazz genius. Their recently released 2022 best-pick album, Alive at the Village Vanguard, recorded in 2018, features songs from The Great American Songbook, music from Brazil, and new jazz compositions by Fred Hersch.
As a celebration of this recent release, the evening’s program included pieces from that album, with perhaps one or two surprises peppered in. There was no printed program specifically identifying each piece presented. The power of the performances and the music itself far outweighed the need for identity specifics. Jazz invokes, jazz defers, jazz allures, and in sympathy with all that jazz may be, perhaps the coy choice of retention of the individual names of some pieces performed is completely in keeping with the essence of jazz. Humbly, with my knowledge of the titles coming mainly from my noting them on their recent release, I offer my impressions, hoping to convey the titles accurately.
The first piece on the program, “But Not for Me” is a well-known, easily recognized standard by George and Ira Gershwin. It has been covered by quite a wide variety of performers, including Harry James, Miles Davis, gospel singer Ketty Lester, Doris Day, Ahmad Jamal, and Harry Connick Jr., to name a few. The interpretation presented this evening contained all the sparkle and sensitivity you would expect from a classic jazz interpretation but included freer ranges of pitch and more open, non-standard phrasing on the part of Hersch that offered the piece a contemporary flair for a fresh experience.
Spalding sang this familiar tune with similar attention to freedom and grace, showing a truly outstanding level of coordination with her partner, navigating all the twists and turns that proved to be a wonderful constant of the evening’s performances. I reveled in the way she would teasingly reach for a phrase’s concluding note, almost hitting it spot-on, but leaving just enough doubt to let us wonder if it was a gaffe or an undeniable aspect of jazz vocalizing that accepts the voice as a microtonal instrument and uses it brilliantly. Personally, I vote for the latter.
Upon the piece’s conclusion, Spalding seemed to be apologizing for its position as a concert opener, stating in an extended conversational fashion that, essentially, they would be getting past the “forlorn” with the initial opening pieces.
And here is something that seems to be an essential component of experiencing jazz with a vocalist. In gifted hands, the conversational talents of the vocalist create an exceptional rapport with an audience that can make you feel so at home. As the concert unfolded, there were numerous occasions when the singing momentarily ceased, offering Esperanza the opportunity (the pleasure?) to address the audience humorously, informatively, slyly, unabashedly, before continuing her engagement with her vocal expressiveness without losing a beat… pun intended.
The opening of one of Fred Hersch’s own compositions, “A Wish,” was a marvelous showcase for his talents as an improviser keenly attuned to incorporating classical music idioms in an improvisational environment. Shortly after this somewhat neo-classical introduction, the piece relaxed into a lovely jazz ballad with light, airy and expressive piano work, and tender singing by his vocal interpreter, expressing the simple wish that one could be another’s valentine. The result displayed all the richness, sensuality and warmth that jazz of this kind can offer. I think we need a New Great American Songbook. I would love to see this piece prominently included.
“Body and Soul,” another gem from The (already existing) Great American Songbook, was ably and energetically performed by our superb artists, each offering their own personal twists in style and phrasing. This song has been recorded by so many talents, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday notwithstanding. Fred and Esperanza’s interpretation was more upbeat than most but still lovingly communicated an unfulfilled heart’s longing for its object of admiration to simply surrender.
“Loro” turned out to be an outstanding showcase for Spalding’s ability to use her voice as a singular musical instrument. In that, she shares a great tradition with such performers as Ella Fitzgerald, Meredith Monk, and others. Based on birdsong transcriptions, almost the entire piece was melodically vocalized in a rapidly shifting collection of syllables, invoking the ecstasy and rapture of a bird in flight, eventually slowing to a soft and sudden conclusion. The sparse and thoughtful accompaniment from Fred Hersch was flawless. Delightful!
“Little Suede Shoes” was another vocal offering that, using perhaps a further-evolved kind of “scat” singing (but with her own exclusive touch), showcased Esperanza’s wide vocal range and keen sense of dynamic control. It also vividly showcased Hersch’s marvelous talents for giving us lush harmonies, rich modulations, classical music references, and excursions/incursions of rhythm that take us deep into the unknown but then lead us effortlessly back to the place where we belong. The piece was preceded by a very long and engaging story about the magic of suede shoes, and how we might each become jazz dancers simply by casting the correct spell on our little suede shoes and choosing to wear them because, to paraphrase Esperanza, “You know, of course, that jazz is really for dancing.” Even in your local diner!
The conversation included occasional brief references to times in our history where African-American musicians did not enjoy the respect they deserve, and where the diversity found in a proper 1940’s jazz club may have been considered inappropriate by others. The beauty of providing such “jazz conversation” as part of our musical experience assures us that it’s not just about our ears but about our hearts, our dreams, and our very lives.
The most humorous piece of the evening, and perhaps the most engaging, was “Girl Talk,” another jazz standard written by Neil Hefti with lyrics by Bobby Troup. This piece incorporated the greatest amount of spoken communication with the audience, interspersed by the singing of the song itself (or was it the other way around?), telling the story of the secret messages shared between women, perhaps throughout history, often to foster change, communicate secret meeting places, or just reaffirm each other’s value and reality.
I have to wonder if such a story – and I cannot attest to its truth or falsehood – isn’t a most clever reaction to a piece expressing typical male attitudes towards women, attitudes characteristic of the 50’s and 60’s. One of Ms. Spalding’s more humorous comments referred to women watching The View, understanding all the clandestine messages delivered by its hosts and guests.
I occasionally watch The View. I think I understand what they’re saying. Am I missing something? OMG, maybe Spalding’s story is … dare I say it? … TRUE!?
The last piece presented for the evening, Hersch’s own “Dream of Monk,” began with an extended explanation from Fred Hersch, who had spoken very little throughout the concert. He conveyed his experience of a dream about himself and Thelonious Monk, where they both were trapped in separate cages, and each required to write a piece in an uncomfortably brief amount of time in order to gain their freedom.
Mr. Hersch shared that, in order to capture the essence of the dream experience, he decided to use a timer to contain his composing efforts. The piece itself was quite joyful and whimsical, with Hersch presenting punctuated pianistic jazz fragments, while Spalding’s vocalizations floated above, with lyrics and phonetics cleverly sung.
However, on Ms. Spalding’s request, the piece was preceded by her solo vocalise, “The Fly.” It was mesmerizing. I cannot convey the melody, nor repeat the rhythms, but her rendition transported my heart and soul to places of Sky and Air and Blue and Light. Truly uncanny! I was reminded of the supposition that Debussy is the gateway to the jazz idiom, and I thought of that amazing climactic moment in his Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun where polyrhythmic phrases of various lengths render the same sensations for me. I thought of Esperansa’s vocalise, and I thought of Debussy. I reflected on the entire concert and thought of impressionism and the magic of jazz. Different musics, different eras. Still, it felt like ancestry.
Jazz is a genre unlike any other. Yes, of course, all the musical genres we know, and all yet to come, have their own audiences, attractions, virtues, shortcomings, and transcendent characteristics. But in jazz, you have a marvelous blending of virtuosity, complexity, storytelling, control, harmony, coordination, dispersion, assembly, confidence, color, allure, richness, lushness, brashness, chaos, and communication found nowhere else. Classical music might speak to your mind, popular hit music might speak to your heart, rock and roll may pump your adrenaline, new age music may touch your spirit, but even in the midst of its brilliance and bravura, jazz can speak to you like you’re family. ■