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Fred Hersch: Alive at the Vanguard

Jeff Dayton-Johnson By

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Pianist Fred Hersch's two-disc trio date is called Alive at the Vanguard. It's a very efficient title: it manages to say three important things about the album.

On one hand, the title assertively claims the disc's place in the lofty company of other live albums recorded at the legendary Village Vanguard in New York. These parallels are established in Hersch's set list. Saxophonist Sonny Rollins' Night at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 2 (Blue Note, 1957), for example, also featured "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise." Hersch's trio, like Newk's, is driven on this number by a strong bass voice (Wilbur Ware on the old date, John Hébert on Hersch's). The Hersch trio, just to make the comparison explicit, follows up "Softly" with a masterfully loping version of Rollins signature tune, "Doxy."

Pianist Bill Evans' pair of classic 1961 trio dates from the Vanguard, meanwhile, are also echoed, if less directly; "Nardis," a longtime centerpiece of Evans's repertoire, is included here in a powerful mash-up with alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman." Furthermore, there is "Tristesse," a lovely tribute to Paul Motian, the drummer on the Evans dates (and who died not long before Hersch's album was recorded); the Hersch tune neatly captures Motian's idiomatic compositional style.

The album's title furthermore distinguishes it from the pianist's previous Grammy Award-winning heavyweight, Alone at the Vanguard (Palmetto, 2011). Indeed, Hersch, a particularly self-sufficient player, tends to be pretty well-suited to the "alone" format: his playing is ornate, baroque and propulsive, like Oscar Peterson's or Erroll Garner's. His small group recordings increasingly demonstrate his capacity to make room in his whirlwind of notes for other musicians—his fine duet with clarinetist Nico Gori, Da Vinci (Bee Jazz, 2012), being a good example.

On this Vanguard trio date, Hersch is joined by bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson, members of pianist Andrew Hill's rhythm section on the excellent Time Lines (Blue Note, 2006), another daunting comparison, away from which Hersch does not shy.

Third, and perhaps most subtly, the title—Alive—is a reminder of of Hersch's recovery from a harrowing health scare, a two-month coma in 2008 brought about by a severe case of pneumonia. Perhaps Hersch is suggesting that life is to be celebrated; if so, the music certainly makes a good case.

That's a lot of meaning to pack in a title. There is much more packed into the recording.

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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