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Fred Hersch: Alone At The Vanguard

Dan Bilawsky By

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Creating an album title—Alone At The Vanguard—that reads as a double entendre and an oxymoron—whether intentional or not—is a great achievement, but not nearly as impressive as the music that pianist Fred Hersch presents on this live recording. While the Vanguard in the title is a direct reference to the hallowed basement club in New York City where this album was recorded, Hersch truly holds a rarefied position in the vanguard of the jazz pianist ranks. While he has been known to stroll along a broad array of aural avenues, comfortably moving from musical meditations on the work of Walt Whitman to piano trio explorations to unique encounters with far-reaching artists like Bill Frisell and Renee Fleming, his solo piano work might be his greatest strength.

The people at Palmetto had the foresight to record every set during Hersch's week-long run at the end of 2010, but rather than cherry pick a number or two from each set—à la Stan Getz's People Time (Polygram, 1992)—they present a start-to-finish set. While a future Complete Fred Hersch At The Village Vanguard might be a nice thought, it's only wishful thinking for now, and this recording is more than sufficient to satiate the appetite of his fans until that day arrives.

Included within the program are a pair of paeans—"Lee's Dream (Dedicated To Lee Konitz)" and "Down Home (Dedicated To Bill Frisell), which appeared on Fred Hersch Trio + 2 (Palmetto, 2004); classics from jazz giants Sonny Rollins ("Doxy") and Thelonious Monk ("Work"); and a bit of Brazilian magic in the form of Bandolim's "Doco de Coco"; but a Frank Sinatra standard beats all in terms of emotional impact. Hersch opens the set with a take on "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning" that conveys a complete and appropriate sense of isolation and bruised masculinity, while also providing hopeful signs for a better tomorrow.

After such an affecting opener, Hersch could really do no wrong, but he doesn't take his performance lightly: instead, he displays musical haughtiness and cheer when saluting Frisell; delights in creating fine narrative arc; toys with a more tempered attack on his nod to Konitz; provides a pearly touch in the upper reaches of the piano; and brings greater dignity and development to the work of Monk than 99.9 percent of the people that peddle his wares.

While Hersch's slowly roaming dissection of "Doxy" ends the program on an understated note, an artist of his caliber doesn't need fireworks to impress at the end of a night. The evolution of his every idea can freeze a smile on the face of his audience, command attention, and leave a room rapt with appreciation and admiration. Alone At The Vanguard is the proof.

Track Listing: In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning; Down Home (dedicated to Bill Frisell); Echoes; Lee's Dream (Dedicated to Lee Konitz); Pastorale (Dedicated to Robert Schumann); Doco de Coco; Memories Of You; Work; Doxy.

Personnel: Fred Hersch: piano.

Title: Alone at the Vanguard | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: Palmetto Records


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