I was fortunate to worship with the converted at Eric Reed’s altar at the Village Vanguard on Sunday, April 9. He was leading the congregation from his piano (actually, the VV’s venerable piano—what souls have imprinted that keyboard!), with his confessed alter-ego Tim Green providing counter-point on alto and tenor saxophone. Reed was on fire with spirit, innovation, and purpose. Green’s long lines were strong and clear, with a cleanness that complemented Reed’s soulful presence.
The band started with a tribute to Thelonious Monk, weaving the Monk’s magic into a medley of classic jazz, then shifted into gospel groove with “Git’cha Shout On” from soon-to be released A Light in Darkness, and crowd-fave “Prayer” from Reed’s Reflections of a Grateful Heart (2013). The audience was swept up in a collective contemplation of the fullness of love the human heart is capable of during these two songs, and it took off from there, building to a culmination of optimistic joy by the end of the set. One of the reasons I love going to the Vanguard on the final Sunday show of a band’s stay is that they have reached a cohesive groove and relaxation at this point in the run, and a comparison of the recorded version of Prayer with the live version on Sunday illuminates what I mean—there was an immediacy and excitement to the live performance that elevated the song to a new level of ministry and revelation.
Perhaps expected in the world of jazz, Reed speaks a political message with his soul-stirring melodies. “The older I get, the more I start to see my musical, spiritual, and personal influences as all one stream of consciousness,” Reed says. In today’s strange time, a very real, pressing question is how can the arts help us deal with the political situation. Reed is the first jazz artist I’ve heard address this directly. He enjoined the audience to pray for our leaders in these difficult times, saying they need our loving energy which will help guide their actions, whether they know they need our prayers or not! I was uplifted by this message with the music, which acknowledged what is going on in the world, and provided his listeners with the positivity and hope of right action and loving responsiveness, rather than despair and the futile hatred of ugly memes and clickable sensationalist links that seems to make up so much of people’s response to the times in social media. Responding to chaos and aggression with love might seem naïve to some, but I believe it is the response of a more mature humanity.
Reed is the son of a Pentecostal preacher, and was playing piano in his father’s church by age 5. He is steeped in the tradition of Christian love, and this heritage has matured into taking right action in the world through his role as inspirational entertainer. His early days in the Pentecostal church reverberated on the stage at the Village Vanguard, with the organic call-and-response that was part of those earlier Sunday nights. It was a time to share in a community of people who understand, and say “Yeah, we know.”
In between numbers, Reed also reminisced about the Vanguard owners giving him a chance 20 years ago when he was in his twenties, and he talked about the up-and-coming generation in the audience on Sunday night. Some of these up-and-comers were on stage with him as well. Young pups Michael Gurrola on bass and McClenty Hunter Jr. on drums laid down a strong gospellation of groove and amens.
It’s fascinating to watch a piano master at work, whatever the music genre. I remember watching the Buena Vista Social Club pianist Rubén González and his incredibly long fingers seemed illuminated with Wim Wenders’ divine light. Another Cuban-born pianist, David Virelle’s amazing spider fingers dance on the keys with a distinctive pouncing movement. Reed’s soulful jazz piano hands are mesmerizing in a different way, with resiliency and spiritual presence actually curving the ends of his fingertips up away from the keys, so that the pads connect with a caress each time they touch down. Then the blur of movement picks up tempo to faster than the speed of light, and the sounds of 10 notes at once fills the ear space with joyful jazz improvisation.
Philadelphia-born Reed has a 27-year career as a recording band leader, from 1990’s Soldier’s Hymn to the 2014 release Groovewise, and also recorded on numerous Wynton Marsalis albums in the 90s, including Live at the Village Vanguard (1999). More recently he played on Christian McBride’s Kind of Brown (2009). At the time of the April Vanguard show, Reed was in rehearsal for his upcoming release, A Light in Darkness.
This release will be Reed’s thoughtful, deliberate response to current events “Yeah, I see what’s happening out there–I’m not living under a rock or sticking my head in the sand. My faith is undaunted by the ugliness of racism, greed, and blatant ignorance of, seemingly, a world gone even madder than one can imagine. It’s easy to get away: prayer, the soft, mild chords on my piano in my solitude.
“These are all the things I think about as I prepare for a new recording… I can tell you, it will be highly emotional, more so than any of my other works. It will be a creation, a compilation, a collaboration and it will illuminate love, love, love!”
Reed toured with Ravi Coltrane to the Jazz on the Odra Festival in Poland this spring, followed by various dates in California and DC. He’ll be playing with his Eric Reed Quartet in New York, NY for his CD Release Party at Smoke Jazz Club on November 10-12, 2017, featuring music from A Light in Darkness.