Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch
Singer, bassist, and songwriter Esperanza Spalding and pianist and composer Fred Hersch are releasing a five-song EP recorded live at Village Vanguard, with all proceeds benefitting the Jazz Foundation of America. The performances, selected from a weekend run at the Vanguard in October 2018 and offered as rough mixes, with no edits, are a reminder of what jazz can be – creative, daring, subversive, and yes, fun. These are two superior artists working at a high level, often suggesting dancers changing roles on the fly, now leading, now following, challenging, and teasing each other while tiptoeing and turning on a ledge. The results are often spellbinding.
The EP will be sold exclusively for download through Bandcamp, with all proceeds benefitting the Jazz Foundation of America and the organization’s efforts to assist members of the jazz community impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It will be available only through June for a minimum of $17, with additional donations encouraged on a pay-what-you-wish basis.
The EP can be purchased at https://esperanzaspaldingfredhersch.bandcamp.com
As it turns out, this music wouldn’t have been heard, at least not now and perhaps not for a while, if not for the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic on working jazz musicians and Spalding’s and Hersch’s impulse to help.
That seemingly long-ago October weekend at the Vanguard, “the business was fantastic and the audiences were great,” recalled Hersch. “We recorded those three nights, and the following week I went through and I picked my favorite tracks. I was super excited so I nudged her a few times to say, hey, this is really great. Let’s put this out. But then I became a little disappointed that we weren’t able to put it out.” As it turns out, Spalding had released her latest album 12 Little Spells that same weekend and, understandably, was focusing on promoting it. “So I just stopped nudging her. I didn’t want to be a pest. It was up to her when she could do it,” explains Hersch. “And then about a month ago, I got an e-mail from her saying, ‘People need to hear this. We need to raise some money. Let’s see what we can do.’ And I was delighted.”
“A lot of the organizations helping musicians have run out of money because the demand has been so high,” says Hersch. “So we just felt we needed to put this out now. It’s five tracks, without mixing, without doing anything to them, just as they were performed; and it’s 17 bucks to support a really good cause. In a year and a half or so, we’ll put out the whole album as a two-disc vinyl.”
In trying to decide what organization should be the beneficiary, they did their research and found that the Jazz Foundation of America “had a very easy application.” As a test, Spalding’s assistant called them as a musician in need, “and they called her back within 24 hours,” recalled Hersch. “They seem to be a pretty efficient organization.”
As for live performing — a critical source of income for jazz musicians — the future, at least in the short term, looks grim.
“From where I sit, I think the performing arts and, of course, air travel and sporting events, will probably be the last things to come back because you’re dealing with numbers of people close together,” says Hersch. He will be 65 in October, has HIV and diabetes, he notes, and while ”both are incredibly well controlled” he is in the high-risk group. “First of all, I don’t know if they’re going to want somebody [in Europe] coming from New York. Second of all, I don’t know if I want to be on a plane for eight hours and go through an airport. So I don’t expect to do any gigs for a year and a half — unless a vaccine comes sooner.”
Hersch began exploring online alternatives early on in the pandemic, offering free, song-of-the-day performances. He would get “five, six, eight thousand people watching it” and received “beautiful comments from people all over the world.” But when he tried to “gently monetize” the experience, charging a modest fee, the results were disappointing and after just a few weeks, he canceled it. Now he’s back to performing his Tune-of-the-day feature — but only “whenever I feel like it.”
He did one in late May and 18,000 people watched it.
“Everybody is trying to figure this out,” he says. “I think what’s going to make a huge difference is when the technology gets to the point where I could play live on a stream or a video with other musicians without the latency, a problem that we have right now with things like Zoom. That that could change some of the dynamics.”
Still, “I do worry that there’s going to be stream fatigue,” muses Hersch. “People who have regular jobs, they’re on a screen all day. How much bandwidth will they have in the evening to check out the Metropolitan Opera rebroadcasts or a jazz club broadcast — even if it’s free.”
As for the performances on Live at the Village Vanguard, Hersch is as imaginative, sensitive, and resourceful as ever framing and exploring the material. But Spalding’s performance might be an eye-opener even for those who already know her singing. She has a limpid tone, impeccable intonation, phrasing, and timing, and she’s a fearless improviser. She’s also an engaging performer, and she sounds here as confident, charming, and relaxed as if she were singing in her living room before a group of friends. At one point, while performing Egberto Gismonti’s slalom-like melody in “Loro,” Spalding responds to a sneeze in the audience with a polite “Bless you” without missing a beat. As the tune progresses, there’s a second sneeze but, also on the fly, she demurs: ‘You don’t get it twice. One ‘blessing’ for the night.” Musically, her sly and razor-sharp, reimagining of “Girl Talk” is perhaps the highlight of this release.
“I think this is going to make people sit up because they have not heard her as a straight-ahead jazz singer before and she is so fast, she hears absolutely everything and has great instincts. And she has an unbelievable knowledge of harmony because she’s such a great instrumentalist,” says Hersch. “And I feel great about the way I played. We bring out the best in each other. There’s something that’s really, really significant here in the evolution of the piano-vocal duo.”