Is this disc’s title an apropos description of the current era, with its semi-permanent malaise, and anger seemingly just below the surface of all public discourse? Maybe. Vincent Herring’s response: Gather like-minded musicians and make a joyful noise with a set of muscular blues-tinted jazz.
Much of Hard Times feels like a natural extension of the soul-jazz/hard-bop approach Herring’s been perfecting since playing with the likes of Nat Adderley, Art Blakey and Horace Silver. The project unofficially had its genesis in six months of Monday-night gigs the saxophonist played with bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Carl Allen at Smoke in Manhattan. For the CD, they’re joined by Cyrus Chestnut on piano and Fender Rhodes, with guest-shots by guitarist Russell Malone and several horn players.
Singer Nicolas Bearde is out front on a snappy take on Bill Withers’ hit “Use Me,” driven by Nakamura’s sounding of the familiar groove, Allen’s laidback funk punch, Herring’s slippery alto excursion and Malone’s slow-burning solo. Bearde is also center stage on “Summertime,” freshened up with unexpected rhythmic twists and reharmonizations, Chestnut’s turn on Rhodes, the leader’s buoyant soprano work and a beefy horn section of trombonist Steve Turre, trumpeter Brad Mason and tenor saxophonist Sam Dillon. And Bearde is similarly appealing on a standard, a relaxed stroll through “Embraceable You.”
Herring’s alto and Malone’s guitar combine for a unison stroll through John Handy’s album-opening “Hard Work,” and Chestnut, on acoustic piano, helps bring out the gospel-blues strains of Paul Mitchell’s “Hard Times,” associated with David “Fathead” Newman. The leader also pays tribute to late bandmates, nodding to pianist Mulgrew Miller with the heady “Eastern Joy Dance,” and referencing Adderley with “Good Morning Heartache,” a moving ballad sparked by a brief brass-choir prelude. The band offers original compositions, too: Malone’s lush guitar introduces Herring’s tuneful “The Sun Will Rise Again,” and the saxophonist, on alto, gives his bop chops a workout on Allen’s “Piccadilly Square.” Hard Times indeed makes an effective balm.