In the broad spectrum of live music, few constructions rival the oddball nature of the jazz duo. There’s a focused intimacy to the soloist, a rhythmic convergence to the trio, and a full-bodied roundness to anything more. Duos – sparse, improvisatory – are a bit of an eccentricity.
Think about a conversation between two parties, as opposed to three or four. Additional speakers foster not only topical restrictions but the risk of talking over one another. A tête-à-tête bears no such limitations. In direct dialogue, with just the one element to listen and respond to, constraints fall by the wayside.
I’ve been alternately intrigued and puzzled by jazz duos ever since the winter of 2015, when I attended two confounding gigs in rather quick succession: Julian Lage/Nels Cline at the Royal Room in January, and Herbie Hancock/Chick Corea at the Paramount in March. Lage and Cline, fleet-fingered guitarists fresh off the release of their album Room, locked eyes and flung improbable tritone chords at one another like a shuttlecock. Two months later piano titans Hancock and Corea did much the same – Paul de Barros in the Seattle Times called it “highly sophisticated, atmospheric noodling.”
Recalling these shows, it was with somewhat guarded expectations that I took my seat at Jazz Alley this week for the third of three sold-out performances pairing bassist and singer esperanza spalding with piano marvel Fred Hersch. Well – maybe “guarded” isn’t the right word. Thanks to 2013’s Free Flying, a live album pairing Hersh with the aforementioned Lage, I knew the pianist could pull off a duo. And spalding’s Seattle visits are rare enough to constitute a five-alarm fire, hence the weeknight sellouts.
In his excellent jazz survey Playing Changes, critic Nate Chinen writes in The New York Times: “Few jazz musicians have ever been more comfortable in the spotlight than spalding.” Wednesday’s show corroborated this claim, as spalding, bass-less, seated on a four-legged stool, alternately sang-talked, scatted, and crooned her way from song to story and back again. At times ironic, occasionally moralistic, always improvisatory, she used Hersch’s free-flowing accompaniment to full effect, covering Charlie Parker’s “My Little Suede Shoes,” Duke Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss,” and the showtune “Girl Talk,” the misogynism of which spalding critiqued at length.
Whether fluttering over high notes on Egberto Gismonti’s “Loro” or acknowledging her family in the audience, spalding – a product of Portland, Oregon – was magnetic. While a few showgoers grumbled about her not bringing along a bass, it wasn’t in the cards for this tour, and Hersh anyhow flushed out the sonic backdrop with clever abundance, echoing the cross-genre musings of his old New England Conservatory teacher Jaki Byard.
Earlier this month, spalding and Hersch released the New York leg of their tour as an album. I feel fortunate to have seen them at it in person, even if they did little to unscramble the enduring mystery of the jazz duo format.