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Album of the Week: Fred Hersch & esperanza spalding, 'Alive at the Village Vanguard'

Fred Hersch and esperanza spalding
Erika Kapin
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Fred Hersch and esperanza spalding, who teamed up for 'Alive at the Village Vanguard'

“Bless you,” says esperanza spalding — in response to a sneeze from the audience, and in the midst of a trippingly intricate bit of scat-singing — during a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment on Alive at the Village Vanguard, her new duo album with pianist Fred Hersch.

Laughter ripples through the room, in response to spalding’s technical prowess, her lightning reflexes, and her brazen disregard for the fourth wall. A few moments later: another sneeze, another brisk response. “You don’t get it twice,” spalding jokes, in mock-reproach. “One blessing per night.”

The moment comes as spalding is pirouetting through the melody of “Lôro,” which first appeared on Egberto Gismonti's 1981 album Sanfona. She previously recorded the song in the mid-aughts, for her debut album, Junjo. In this intimate yet expansive new version, spalding dances out on a high wire, with Hersch seeming to swoop around her on a trapeze. It’s a concise illustration of the mutual trust and creative spark between these exceptional artists, and of the conditions that united them on the Vanguard stage.

Alive at the Village Vanguard, recorded during a pre-pandemic engagement in October of 2018, is ripe with such moments: mercurial, graceful alignments of thought and mood. Singing without her trusty bass, spalding commits not only to the material at hand but also to a shifting metanarrative.

So her agile rapport with Hersch, who combines the unflappable elegance of a Tommy Flanagan with his own air of surefooted spontaneity, doesn’t really evoke precursors in the voice-and-piano duo department — your Ella Fitzgerald with Ellis Larkins, your Tony Bennett with Bill Evans. I keep returning instead to iconic duos from another field of entertainment. Say, Martin and Lewis. Nichols and May. Maybe even Key & Peele.

Which is not to imply that the artists foreground an explicitly comic agenda. It’s more about spalding’s insistence on being fully present in the moment with each song, and with the audience. This approach is obvious from the opening track, a sprightly reading of the Gershwins’ “But Not For Me” that seems to come with notes hastily scrawled in the margins: “And then some words I don’t really understand, ‘cause it’s like Olde English: Heigh-ho, alas and lack-a-day? ” As with other choice interjections — like an inspired spoken-word exegesis on the old Neal Hefti / Bobby Troup tune “Girl Talk” — the responding laughter is warmly appreciative, grounded in self-aware solidarity.

Fred-Hersch and esperanza spalding at the Village Vanguard
courtesy of the artist
Fred Hersch and esperanza spalding at the Village Vanguard during the Oct. 2018 engagement chronicled on a new album.

Hersch is, of course, much more than an accompanist throughout the set. His spontaneous and nearly flawless orchestration at the piano is a casual marvel, and he brings no less wit to the table than his dazzling partner. His playing also literally sounds fabulous; this is Hersch’s sixth album recorded at the Vanguard, and it’s yet another study in brilliant sonic design. (The bulk of the credit goes to engineer James Farber, assisted by Geoffrey Countryman and by Tyler MacDairmid, who also mixed the album.)

And for all the album’s discursive highs, spalding and Hersch do some of their most sparkling work in the service of musical clarity. You hear it in the saloon tempo and harmonic angularities in “Dream of Monk,” which Hersch originally created as a set piece for My Coma Dreams. You hear it in the care that both artists bring to “Some Other Time,” a bittersweet ballad originally sung by Frank Sinatra on the silver screen during the second World War. And you certainly hear it in “A Wish,” based on one of Hersch’s most enduring compositions, with pitch-perfect lyrics by Norma Winstone.

What ultimately makes Alive at the Village Vanguard special is the openhearted glow in the music, whether it inhabits the framework of a song or spills out along the edges. On a version of Charlie Parker’s “Little Suede Shoes,” it’s mostly the latter: after scatting through the syncopated melody, spalding ventures an improvised benediction. “It’s not lost on us,” she sings, “That it’s technically a Saturday night / And you generously or foolishly have chosen to spend that night / In a jazz club sitting cramped behind a table / Bless you.”

Didn’t spalding say “One blessing per night,” elsewhere in this very set? To cop a phrase from one of Hersch’s avowed heroes, Walt Whitman: Very well then I contradict myself.

Fred Hersch and esperanza spalding appear at The Village Vanguard through Jan. 15. They’ll be at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa. on Feb. 4. See fredhersch.com for more tour dates and information.

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes.