By John McDonough | Published January 2018
To be in motion, music needs a fixed anchor to steady its mobility and locate its position—to navigate its course between the known and the unknown. Vincent Herring’s latest album has two such anchors: his own bell-tower authority on alto and the routings of arranger Takahiro Izuminawa. Together they form a solid backbone for this set of small-band and quartet pieces.
Hard Times is easy to take. The tempos bob along in a relaxed sway but don’t inhibit Herring’s splashy whirlpools of elegant double-time embroideries. In different ways, he walks in the footsteps of Cannonball Adderley—figuratively in the stylistic sense, and literally as part of the Nat Adderley group in the ’90s. Cyrus Chestnut is an aggregator of piano styles that came together just before the discontents of the ’60s swept jazz. It’s a background that makes him a fine partner for Herring. Like many of Herring’s past projects, this one welcomes us with a few familiar handshakes we all know. In this case Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” and “Summertime” are principally vehicles for Nicolas Bearde, a young, semi-known singer who can do the Great American Songbook with a blues feel the way Joe Williams once did. Herring’s soprano saxophone accompanies him on “Summertime.” But those who remember that Sidney Bechet virtually launched Blue Note Records with his classic version of that song in 1939 may wish that Herring had kept that one, perhaps as a salute to the old master himself. The other standard, “Good Morning Heartache,” becomes a seven-minute-plus concerto for Herring’s alto that is one of the album’s high points.
Over on the far side of the familiar is the composing work of John Handy, George Coleman, David Newman and Mulgrew Miller. Frankly, most of the material is fairly bland and leaves the musicians on their own to find any pockets of inspiration. The one Herring original, “The Sun Will Rise Again,” provides a lovely wrapping for guitarist Russell Malone’s most elegant playing of the set. Malone turns sharply from his usual erudition to an uncommonly funky r&b groove on “Use Me,” which he shares with Bearde.
Steve Turre, Brad Mason and Sam Dillon are heard in different combinations on all but three tracks, but mostly in a support mode, providing the gentle ensemble punch and textures that Herring plays to. Brief solo opportunities open up, particularly for Turre, on “Hard Times,” “Piccadilly Square,” “Amsterdam After Dark” and “Phineas.”
Hard Times: Hard Work; Use Me; Summertime; Hard Times; Embraceable You; Eastern Joy Dance; The Sun Will Rise Again; Piccadilly Square; Good Morning Heartache; Amsterdam After Dark; Phineas. (69:15)
Personnel: Vincent Herring, alto and soprano saxophones; Brad Mason (1–4, 8, 9), trumpet; Steve Turre (1–4, 8–11), trombone; Sam Dillon (1–4, 8, 9), tenor saxophone; Nicolas Bearde (2, 3, 5), vocals; Cyrus Chestnut, piano; Russell Malone (1, 2, 7), guitar; Ysushi Nakamura, bass; Carl Allen, drums.