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Fred Hersch Trio: Alive at the Vanguard

Dan McClenaghan By

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Pianist Fred Hersch has found a place to come alive: The Village Vanguard, where so many great live albums have been recorded. Saxophonists John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, pianist Bill Evans and drummer Paul Motian also found the New York City venue a prime spot for live recordings. Hersch revisits the venue with Alive the the Vanguard, following Live at the Village Vanguard (Palmetto Records, 2003), an excellent trio affair with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Nasheet Waits, and Alone at the Vanguard (Palmetto Records, 2011), an extraordinary solo outing.

The "Alive" part of the disc's title may, in part, be a celebration of Hersch's recovery from a life-threatening eight-week coma in 2008; or, perhaps, it is an acknowledgment of his renewed focus and enlivened sense of freedom, the positive outcome of his brush with death. But this certainly is his finest trio outing.

Hersch has found musical soul mates in drummer Eric McPherson and bassist John Hébert, who played in pianist Andrew Hill's last rhythm section. They are players who can set up a fluid flow or pack a prodding punch, and who seem always capable of enhancing Hersch's exquisite sense of melody, beginning with the pianist's gorgeous original opener, "Havana," filled with a feeling of spicy romance and a vibrant momentum.

The two discs of music mix Hersch originals with jazz and Great American Songbook standards. The much-covered "Softly As in a Morning Sunrise" prances with a jaunty insouciance, with Hersch's supple touch on full display, McPherson's whispering brushes, and Hébert putting a bounce in the tune's step.

"Lonely Woman"—surely alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman's most covered tune—gets paired with trumpeter Miles Davis' "Nardis," for a haunting twelve-minute search through the labyrinths of these two masters' melodies, while Sonny Rollins' "Doxy" gets a playful and easy swing treatment.

Either one of these two discs could have served as another superb Fred Hersch trio recording, but what's offered up is a nicely sequenced document of a two-set evening (one per disc) Set two opens with Hersch's aptly named "Opener," which he wrote for McPherson. Hersch teases the pretty melody out of the keys with adept delicacy, as Hébert and McPherson provide a sizzling rhythm that gives way to an orchestral drum solo—snares, cymbals and bass drum telling a tale with a controlled clamor.

"I Fall in Love Too Easily" speaks in soft tones to wistful, perhaps unrequited romance, while Hersch's "Sartorial" is nod to Coleman and the free jazz legend's habit of decking himself out in very cool, oddball resplendence.

Closing with the familiar "The Song Is You," paired with pianist Thelonious Monk's "Played Twice" places longing side-by-side with Monk's playful quirkiness for a superb wrap-up to a great night of music.

Track Listing: CD1: Havana; Tristesse; Segment; Lonely Woman/Nardis; Dream of Monk; Rising, Falling; Softly As In a Morning Sunrise; Doxy. CD2: Opener; I Fall in Love Too Easily; Jackalope; The Wind/Moon and Sand; Sartorial; From This Moment On; The Song is You/Played Twice.

Personnel: Fred Hersch: piano; John Hébert: bass; Eric McPherson: drums.

Title: Alive at the Vanguard | Year Released: 2012 | Record Label: Palmetto Records

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