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Fred Hersch and esperanza spalding playing together in the musical sandbox

esperanza spalding and Fred Hersch
Erika Kapin
esperanza spalding and Fred Hersch

In 2018 when Fred Hersch reached out to esperanza spalding to ask her to perform with him for three nights at the Village Vanguard, he naturally expected that she would be playing bass with him. He didn’t know that for various personal reasons she had stopped playing the bass for that year. But when she told him that she wouldn’t be bringing the bass, the pianist (known for his accompaniment of vocalists) simply said, “Okay, great, let’s get on.” The result was a series of duo performances of Hersch on piano and spalding on vocals that were all recorded. A selection of the material has just been released as the album Alive at the Village Vanguard by Palmetto Records. The two will celebrate the album’s release with a return to the Vanguard Jan. 10-15, as well as a performance at NJPAC on Jan. 29. WBGO’s Lezlie Harrison spoke to Hersch and spalding about their collaboration.

Watch their conversation here: 

Interview transcript:

Lezlie Harrison: Tell me about the origins of your musical friendship.  How did you first come to work with one another?

esperanza spalding: I knew about Fred and his musicianship. I came to hear Fred at the Vanguard with my friend Leo Genovese. I just introduced myself and then shortly after that Fred invited me to be a guest as part of one of the series he was doing at the Jazz Standard. I think that's where we first met and played. That was the musical introduction, and we're still getting introduced forever.

Fred Hersch: Yes. I think we had a great hookup from the very beginning. For this engagement at the Village Vanguard, I actually had a split week, which is kind of unusual. I did three nights with Anat Cohen, whom I love playing with. Then I asked esperanza to play the weekend. I guess it was very shortly before the weekend that she said, “I'm not bringing the bass.” And I said, “Okay, great, let's get on.” And we decided to record it just for posterity. I love records that are found objects, not like going into the studio, you got your set list, you got your thing. I have a number of records in my catalog that were just live concerts that just happened to be good ones. And the recording sound was good. I don't really play that well in the studio anymore. I'm getting old. I just like the live thing, and you can really feel the audience at the Vanguard. It is really the best place to play, period.

It’s one of my favorite rooms to hear music. I love to sit back there in the back and get a full view of the stage to hear music there. The recording that you did is so intimate and personal. I almost feel like I was there those nights. I was not, but it sounds like you were having a wonderful time. Take us back to 2018 when you made that recording. I read that you were both going through some challenges, physical and emotional life challenges. But when you came together to go down those stairs and hit that stage at the Vanguard, beautiful music was made and some healing was going on in the Temple of the Village Vanguard. What were those challenges and how did you bring that to the bandstand and work that out?

Fred Hersch: I had a hard time getting to the bandstand. I was on crutches. Sunday night, closing night, was my 63rd birthday. We finished and you can't just walk out of a club and go to sleep. You still have the energy. You're up for a while. And at 6 a.m. on Monday, I was at Lenox Hill Hospital having my hip replaced. I didn't want to take painkillers, so I was a little bit physically gritty there, but I think we discovered a lot of joy in the midst of other stuff, which is what music does.

esperanza spalding: In 2018 I met my father and my father’s family for the first time. Then I had gone right into this very intense opera workshop season with Wayne [Shorter], when I was reckoning, for the first time at the end of that year of 2018 as the fall approached, with just how dire his physical condition was. There was this curious, very abstract experiencing of all these very deep and complicated dynamics with my father and my real father. And then there was this fear that this person who's like a musical father and mentor was going to die before we could finish this project that I had promised to do.

It was like an existential crisis in both directions. I didn't understand how much was just going on from what was going on. You know what I mean? But there was definitely some very deep dishevelment afoot. I had stopped wanting to play bass that year too. I also found out that my father was a bass player. There were a lot of layers and stuff. I know that this music that we love emerged out of struggle. That's undeniable. It is a chemical process bringing one's self, one's ailment, one's heart, one's true spiritual state to the music and inviting it to do its work. It has this transmutational power. It's a liberation technology. I keep hearing people say, “Oh, the album feels so joyful.” That is not how I was feeling at all except when we were within the music. I actually think that the deeper the need for the remedy, the more potent the remedy, you know? I think a lot of what we're feeling and what we were giving was from that deep remedial place

Fred Hersch: Yes, I was also going to say to me esperanza is a very inspiring musical partner. I hope she feels the same. There was very little planning that went into it. We had a set list from some things that we'd done at the Standard. We added a few different things off the cuff. Really, I just put my hands down. When we played together, I don't have to really think that much. There's a lot of just instinct and deep listening and experience. That comes through too. A sense of let's go for it. Fearless. I think there's a 12-minute track on there and in a piano voice duo, you don't often hear that level of stretching out. I think it earned the 12 minutes too, if I must say.

Esperanza Spalding and Fred  Hersch
c/o the artist
esperanza spalding and Fred Hersch

So you took to the stage with no set arrangements? Did you have a map as to what songs you might want to do?

Fred Hersch: I think we both like a lot of the same songs. That makes it easy and it's not what you play, it's how you play it. So you can look at the set list and say, “Oh, standards, whatever.” But I still don't think there's the ultimate version of “Autumn Leaves” out there either. It's all what you bring to it and how you add your energy and creativity to it. It's not just the song titles. But we did have a set list and it changed sometimes in the middle of the set. We had what I call a menu of songs that we could choose from. Of course, with two people, there are no mistakes. You can't go too far wrong. I don't have to yell the chord changes to the bass player or figure out an ending. It's one of my favorite formats. I've done a lot of duo playing.

Fred, you have done a lot of duo playing. And is that your preference? Duo or trios? Do you have a preference for what you would like to do?

Fred Hersch: Just playing music. Solo duo, trio. If I'm playing in an inspiring place for solo and a great piano and I'm playing with a creative partner in a trio or duo, it’s all a great level of joy for me.

When you were thinking about this, had you planned on esperanza bringing and playing her bass with you on this recording?

Fred Hersch: I assumed it, but when she said no, I said, “Yeah, okay. This could be really cool.”

But Not for Me

Esperanza, I read somewhere where you said that, “Playing with Fred feels like we're in a sandbox. He takes his devotion to music as serious as life and death, but once we start playing, it's just fun.” You can most definitely feel and hear the fun in the recording, despite whatever you all were going through, whatever pain or emotions. It comes through as playful and joyful and a real deep friendship there. How do you keep it fun each night?

esperanza spalding: Playtime is playtime, you know? I love to be around my younger cousins and see the way they have their own little language, their own little laws and symbols. When they're playing make-believe, they so quickly come up with this whole logic and the laws of all the elements of their world. It literally never ends, only if somebody has to stop them for a meal or to go to bed. There's just this continual imaginative outpouring, in whatever context they've imagined for themselves. I think that is something fundamental to human imagination. We set up these terms for ourselves and in make-believe we're always changeable. Like, that's not the ice anymore now, now that's the tar pit.

It seems that’s what we are. As we grow, we have to make more and more sophisticated excuses for ourselves to actually show up with that abandon and that level of mutual trust in the imaginative leanings of each other. In this particular musical playscape, we've each labored a lot to be able to feel as free in it as some kids feel playing in the living room. But once it’s playtime, there’s no efforting. We just are-ing. We’re just be-ing. Especially with Fred, like he was talking about earlier, there's this sense of anything's possible. Like in the equivalent of make believe you could say anything, “Yeah, that's the iceberg now.” Cool. Well then if that's the iceberg, this is a walrus… I have no doubt that whatever comes out will be welcomed and I believe Fred feels the same way. So we can just go and go and go until the set's over.

Fred Hersch: We're going to be playing a variety of venues, some large clubs, some more formal concert situations. For me, during the production of the record, I've heard it many, many times, as you do when you're putting a record out. I just have to erase that. Not every place will be the Village Vanguard. We will get six nights, which I know will be fantastic, but when we're in more formal spaces we're going to try to make things as intimate as possible. For instance, I've requested an oriental carpet and a funky floor lamp and some lighting that make it feel like we have a little living room for you.
Tell me about the songs that you did choose for the recording, like Charlie Parker’s “Little Suede Shoes” and “Dream of Monk.”

Fred Hersch: Well, he was in my dream, so that's why I wrote the song. I don't even know if we'd done “Little Suede Shoes” before opening night. Maybe not. I don't remember.

esperanza spalding: I just think of you and Nancy King's version of that song.

Fred Hersch: Another fearless vocalist from Portland.

Fred Hersch & esperanza spalding - Little Suede Shoes

Esperanza, you killed “Girl Talk.” I love it.

esperanza spalding: I love that song. I first heard Dakota Staton do it and I thought when I heard it, “Ooh, she's saying something else.” Because the song on its own is so unsavory. It's fun to hijack troubled compositions that are clearly representing the diminished thinking of their time. We remediated the soil of that one.

Did you all come up with the set list or did you collaborate on what you would do for the album?

Fred Hersch: We went back and forth, sending virtual mp3s and whatnot. I think Esperanza trusted me to make the initial selections. Then we chose from the ones that I had whittled down. But there were so many other performances that definitely would've made the cut. It was just a question of what I thought we both sound best on and what would sound best together. There's a trend to making shorter albums now. I just did a dual album with Enrico Rava and it was 43 minutes. My last record was 46 minutes with a string quartet. This one is approaching the 70-minute mark, but it's exactly how long we play a set. So you're getting a virtual set, soup to nuts. I think live records can be longer. I think there's a reason that they can be. In the studio you get a little more self-conscious about time and timing . But it was a very collaborative process and I think we agreed on everything pretty well.

Will there be a Part Two? Is there enough material for a second Alive at the Village Vanguard?

Fred Hersch: I don’t know. There are things that didn't make it to the record that you have. We'll see. Maybe there'll be a single that will drop sometime in the future, if we both feel good about it. That's the way people are doing things these days too.

In 2018 when you recorded, it was two years before the pandemic was about to wreak havoc on the world. Can you share a little bit about how the pandemic changed your life and your music and how that will be reflected in what we hear on this tour?

Fred Hersch: I know esperanza decamped to Portland, so that was a biggie. I have to say, I went through a period of what The New York Times called languishing, which is not like complete depression, where you can't get off the sofa, but just feeling unmotivated. Like why write something? I don't know when I'll play it. Why practice? I don't know when I'll have a gig. Doing a lot of word games on the computer and reading Swedish crime novels. We’re out here at our place in Pennsylvania. Fortunately, we have the second place, otherwise we would've been in Soho, which was pretty scary during those first months. But it took me like a good year to get my mojo back.

I've talked it over with people like my shrink and they said: “Look, you've been accomplishing things for 45 years. This is not a time to think about accomplishing stuff. This is your life. Full stop. All the things that bring you pleasure and fun are not here anymore. So just be kind to yourself and if you are unproductive, then so be it. Just try not to beat yourself up about it.” I started touring about 14 months after lockdown, and it's been fantastic. I’m very appreciative of live performance.

What about you, esperanza? How has the pandemic shifted or enhanced your life?

esperanza spalding: I remember doing this little fully improvised duo with Jeff Parker, I think in the spring of 2021. I think that was the first time I had been out in a venue since the lockdown. My experience of the audience was that it was like a different world. I felt that people coming into shared space to hear music were like 1000% present. Not on their phones, not going back and forth to the bar and up to the stage. Just sitting with full attention and full responsivity to what was happening musically. That felt so magical and so powerful. I felt for me and for a lot of beings who love music but maybe took for granted what a gift it is to be able to experience shared music, had this awakening to the miracle that it actually is, to be able to convene and experience this thing called music live.

I definitely have noticed a shift in myself of reverence for the thing, for this phenomenon that we can share with each other. I have since then distinctly felt a shift in the audience. Maybe it's a meeting of our gratitude. Or we are coming into more presence and reverence for what it is. I definitely feel that shift.

Fred Hersch: My first concert back was in June, a year and a half ago. It was in Paris. It was a solo concert and I walked onto the stage and I was basically like a deer in the headlights. I just freaked out because it was the first time I had played. And the first time that anybody was going out to hear anything live. As esperanza said, everybody was masked. They were not serving drinks at the bar, no milling around afterwards. They were just there for the music and it was one of the more emotional performances I've ever had, among some others I can think of. But it was definitely up there in terms of the juiciness of that moment for everybody. I totally agree. Even now, I played at the Vanguard in October and there were a number of people who said, “This is the first time I've gone out to hear music even now.”

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Lezlie Harrison is her own personal renaissance. Her constant state of evolution and growth brings with it, gifts for those those paying attention.
For over 27 years, Lee Mergner served as an editor and publisher of JazzTimes until his resignation in January 2018. Thereafter, Mergner continued to regularly contribute features, profiles and interviews to the publication as a contributing editor for the next 4+ years. JazzTimes, which has won numerous ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards for music journalism, was founded in 1970 and was described by the All Music Guide, as “arguably the finest jazz magazine in the world.”