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Esperanza Spalding teams up with pianist Fred Hersch in this 'Vanguard' recording

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. When pianist Fred Hersch invited jazz, pop and opera composer Esperanza Spalding to perform three nights with him at the Village Vanguard, he'd expected she'd bring her bass. Spalding told him she just wanted to use her voice. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says, did she ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUT NOT FOR ME")

ESPERANZA SPALDING: (Singing) They're writing songs of love but not for me. A lucky star's above but not for me. With love to lead the way, there are more clouds of gray than any Russian play could guarantee. I was a fool to fall and get that way. Hi-ho, alas and also lack-a-day.

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: I'll never hear that 1930 Gershwin song the same way, not after this version where Esperanza Spalding goes off script to contemplate Ira Gershwin's lyric. She takes the opening line literally. This love song is not for me. It was written for someone from another time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUT NOT FOR ME")

SPALDING: (Singing) Oh, me. Oh, my. What a sad case I seem to be. It's my fault, letting love to lead the way. I should know that there'll be skies of gray. I can't say I've seen too many, but they say that Russian plays do boast of many gray skies, all right - and then some words I don't really understand because it's, like, old English - hi-ho, alas, and lackaday. That's how I feel, confused about the whole situation.

WHITEHEAD: Songs by Gershwin and company are jazz evergreens, with their sublime, blues-inflected harmony and sprung rhythms. Esperanza Spalding's confusion over that lyric reminds us that by now, those standards are also the parlor songs of a previous century. The song "But Not For Me" comes from a musical set way out west. And that hi-ho and lackaday poke fun at already archaic language. As for that gloomy Russian play, Broadway staged a few Chekhov revivals around 1930. But while lyrics grow stale, the last century's jazzy music endures.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE SUEDE SHOES")

SPALDING: (Scatting, singing) See, it's not lost on us 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.

WHITEHEAD: Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch from their singular album "Alive At The Village Vanguard," recorded in 2018. The Vanguard is Hersch's favorite place to play, practically his third living room. He makes a singer feel very much at ease and at home, letting her have the spotlight and making her sound better.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DREAM OF MONK")

SPALDING: (Scatting).

WHITEHEAD: With Fred Hersch at the Vanguard, Esperanza Spalding confronts one more dated 20th century lyric. This one she understands only too well, Bobby Troup's patronizing words to 1965's "Girl Talk." Spalding sings the catty lyric almost straight while attacking the premise from the inside.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL TALK")

SPALDING: (Singing) We all meow about the ups and downs of all our friends, the who, the how, the why. We dish the dirt. It never ends. Not weaker sex, just speaker sex. You mortal men, behold. For you may joke, but we wouldn't trade it for a ton of gold. You see our way. We gab away. But hear me say that after girl talk, try and decode the hidden meaning. It's OK. I know it's not for everyone. That's kind of the point.

WHITEHEAD: She's just warming up. From there, discussion advances in two moves from a drugstore sale on false eyelashes to environmental consciousness.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL TALK")

SPALDING: See, dudes, you think we're talking about one thing. But y'all don't understand. We're practicing a theory of economic sustainability. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Am I lying?

WHITEHEAD: Esperanza Spalding is funny, charming, silver-tongued and self-assured as she unspools her disquisitions in rhythm, counting on Fred Hersch to stimulate her imagination and back every play. Little as we've talked about him, he also sounds great here. "Alive At The Village Vanguard" isn't straight-ahead jazz or a cabaret act or offbeat comedy album or impromptu guest lecture, but all that stuff is in there. I can't think of another record like it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LORO")

SPALDING: (Scatting). Bless you. (Scatting).

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." And he writes for Point of Departure and the Audio Beat. He reviewed the album Fred Hersch and Esperanza Spalding "Alive At The Village Vanguard." After a short break, John Powers will review "Birnam Wood," the new novel by Eleanor Catton, about a guerrilla collective that seeks to fight capitalism and ecological devastation through legal and illegal means. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEITH JARRETT TRIO'S "CONCEPTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.