Vincent Herring, Preaching to the Choir Review
by Stamish Malcuss
Saxophonist Vincent Herring is back with a new album called Preaching to the Choir on Smoke Sessions Records. He is joined by Cyrus Chestnut on piano, Yasushi Nakamura on bass, and Johnathan Blake on drums. The album celebrates hope in the face of the pandemic and celebrates Herring’s success with Coronavirus and its career-threatening side effects. “We have to have hope for the future,” Herring insists. “I’ve been in a constant state of disbelief with so much going on that is negative in the world, but I try to look at the positive side of everything. Fate is written with all kinds of twists and turns, and in the end, the only thing you can do is realize that as bad as things are – and they are bad –the promise of tomorrow is going to be special.”
Last August, he traveled to Las Vegas to participate in a centennial celebration for one of his heroes, Charlie Parker, with conductor Justin DiCioccio leading a string orchestra. The saxophonist now believes that it was on the flight back to New York that he contracted COVID. “It felt like the flu,” he recalls. “I was tired all the time, but I wasn’t coughing, and I didn’t have any respiratory problems. After less than a week, I felt totally fine.” However, the virus started to affect Herring a few weeks later when he began feeling pain in his joints. “I remembered some comedian talking about when you get to be over 50, you get aches and pains, and when you tell the doctor, they’re just like, ‘Yeah, it happens.’ So, I didn’t think anything of it, but then it got progressively worse. My doctor had me do a blood test, and she told me I had rheumatoid arthritis – and it was a gift from COVID.”
Chronic joint pain can be a death knell for a musician – it has ended careers – so Herring entered the studio feeling strong but unsure of his future. “I knew it was a possibility that this would be my last record,” he says. “I wasn’t saying that to other people, but the thought was constantly in my mind.”
Wes Montgomery’s “Fried Pies” is a joyous moment and celebration of Herring’s full recovery. The blues language is rich in this, and Nakamura and Blake swing hard as Herring digs into the long jazz-blues tradition. The joy in which Montgomery played is matched by Herring, that exceptional bounce and celebration through the power of swing time that only jazz masters can achieve. Chestnut makes the piano sing with his effortless style with sounds of the church, blues, hard bop, and swing.
The title track, a Herring original, has a catchy melody in a call and response manner with rhythmic figures that carry over into the solo section. “I wrote this song as a tribute to my fans,” Herring says, recalling the messages of love and support he received throughout his recent ordeal. “During a time like this, you need to hear kind words. Thinking this would be my last recording was depressing but hearing from people what my saxophone voice meant to them was very rewarding.” His solo channels that positive energy and is richly textured in active flurries with the bluesy melodic response themed by the melody. The groove feel is celebrated by Chestnut as he cleverly builds his solo to a powerful chordal climax.
Preaching to the Choir is a jazz celebration by a masterful ensemble led by Herring’s true jazz spirit. The message of love, appreciation, and, most of all, hope influences every note and space on Preaching to the Choir. This is the energy we need to focus on, and music is such a pure vehicle. “In spite of everything,” Herring proclaims, “even though I’m in constant pain and discomfort, I still feel grateful because it could have been worse. So, I do count my blessings.” Get Preaching to the Choir and join the celebration; you will be glad you joined in on the joy. Jazz is great? All the time!