Fred Hersch Pocket Orchestra: Live at the Jazz Standard (2009)
This unique album stands in a class all by itself: an artful and artsy set of original compositions by pianist Fred Hersch evoking musical images of an America gone by, perhaps from the early 1900s to the 1950s, when life was more innocent than it is today. Distinctly jazz, it incorporates classical and other musical structures and allusions. Recorded live at the Jazz Standard, all the pieces are Hersch originals, manifesting his ongoing references to the full spectrum of American music.
The notion of a Pocket Orchestra is a good one for such nostalgic music. The phrase has connotations of an old-fashioned music box, as well as a time before the advent of recorded sound, when music was made at home with a pianist at the center, and perhaps a singer and an instrumentalist joining in. The absence of the usual double-bass in a jazz group gives Hersch an opportunity for a wider variation of musical styles, making for a pocket to be filled in musically.
The personnel give skillful performances and interact well with one another. In addition to Hersch on piano, Australian-born Jo Lawry is a very sophisticated singer who virtually serves as a co-instrumentalist, and whether or not there is an Australian cultural influence there is something to consider. Trumpeter Ralph Alessi renders ingenious improvisations, while percussionist Richie Barshay backs up the group effectively, adding a few touches of his own using the standard drum set and ornamentation.
"Stuttering" flips between a boogie rag and hard bop. Following an intro by Hersch, there's a duet between him and Alessi, with a halting and discordant quality suggestive of a stutter. "Child's Song" offers a sweet Latin chant by Lawry, followed by Alessi's improvisation which perhaps reflects the more troubled side of childhood. "Song without Words #4: Duet" consists of a theme stated by Lawry, with instrumental variations and elaborations.
"Light Years" is a word pun. Hersch's lyrics evoke memories of the awakening of self-consciousness. It is a poetic plainsong about those innocent first experiences of shadows and light: "What did you think it was?" It is the magic of lives reflected in light and chiaroscuro shading. "Down Home"; begins as a country tune and evolves into a lively evocation of a street band (akin to Charles Ives' "Putnam's Camp" in Three Places in New England, in which the composer created the remarkable effect of two marching bands passing one another.)
"Invitation to the Dance (Sarabande)" is a light piece again suggestive of Bach, with slight hints of baroque. The "dance" is a peon to romance: "Only when he takes her hand does her life begin." "Lee's Dream" is a testament to pre-bop and bebop with a lively lilt. Is the composer thinking of Lee Morgan? Maybe, maybe not. The unison scat at the end gives the number finesse. "Canzona" is a very simple song without words in an Italianate style. "Free Flying" is a homage to Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, with fugal counterpoint galore. Finally, "A Wish (Valentine)" has become a Hersch signature tune, with the addition of a winsome lyric sung beautifully by Lawry.
Track Listing: Stuttering; Child's Song; Song without Words #4: Duet; Light Years; Down Home; Invitation to the Dance (Sarabande); Lee's Dream; Canzona; Free Flying; A Wish (Valentine).
Personnel: Fred Hersch: piano; Ralph Alessi: trumpet; Jo Lawry: vocals; Richie Barshay: percussion.