Sometimes the stars move into position, and I get to witness a performance by someone whose new CD has just arrived in my mailbox. Nite and Disk is not about which one is "better" - that live vs Memorex thing. Instead, it considers how the two experiences enrich each other, broadening one's appreciation of an artist or band. Live gives you the visuals, the spontaneity, and the risk; recorded allows you to repeat the performance and savor its nuances. It's good to hear a bass solo that's free of coughs, glassware and conversation, and it's also good to watch someone hugging a scuffed and beloved instrument. Together, it's the whole delicious package.
Most recently I got a double dose: copies of Fred Hersch's Live at the Village Vanguard (Palmetto) and Jacky Terrasson's Smile (Blue Note), and the chance to see them both at the aforementioned Vanguard. First of all, seeing anything at that precious old club is a treat: refusing to get glitzy and expensive, it focuses squarely on the intimate exchange between artist and listener. Fifteen nearly-vertical steps down from bustling 7th Avenue, this calm and cozy space awaits. Its plain stage saturated with jazz history, it has a particularly fine Steinway B, superb sound, and the friendly feel of someone's finished-basement rec room. It's a shrine for serious playing and listening, and woe to the tourist who stumbles in and chats over a solo (OK, maybe not woe, but certainly glares and shushing).
Fred's brilliant new CD, his first for Palmetto, had just been released the day of this opening night. It's an icy Tuesday in January, dark war noises are in the wind, and many of us are happily avoiding Bush's State of the Union address. "I'm grateful to be here," Fred tells us, "otherwise I might be tempted to tune it in." He rubs his hands to warm them up. Bassist Drew Gress looks like an ice fisherman from Wisconsin, all multi-layered with a scarf around his neck, and drummer Nasheet Waitts wears a woolen cap. A straight-up Absolut does it for me. Though Fred normally begins with some Monk, tonight he starts out with two of his own: "A Lark," written for Kenny Wheeler, and a gorgeous ballad that's on the CD, At the Close of Day. A model of concentration, at times he bends so far over the piano that his nose nearly touches the keys; when the others solo, he sits sideways on the bench toward them, listening intently. He's wearing a satin-backed vest that gleams as he moves, catching light from the bank of small spots overhead, the main illumination in the room. Periodically, a train rumbles under our feet: "subway obligato," someone says.
As always, Drew is nimble and infinitely thoughtful. I notice how often he gets the last word instead of Fred, who allows a chord to sustain while Drew executes the final pluck. There's a pole between me and Nasheet, but I can still appreciate the masterful way he builds and dismantles his solos, his combination of power and control. (It's probably just as well that I can't see him, since I might be distracted by that tight turtleneck hugging his superb physique - hey, if male reviewers can rhapsodize over Jane Monheit's curves, why can't I comment on a buff drummer??!)
Fred introduces each tune: "'Phantom of the Bopera' was written for Joe Henderson," he says, noting Henderson's picture on the wall. "Black Dog Pays a Visit," is "a mood piece - a song about depression." Starting with an ominous drum roll, it perfectly captures its dark frustrations. He follows this with the playful "Stuttering" from the CD, prompting me to ask him at the break if he intends to musicalize the whole psychiatric manual. "Tourette's is next," he says, jerking his neck and making a silly face.
Fred's droll sense of humor is apparently lost on critics who think he's too cerebral. They should check out the CD's fun and funky "Swamp Thang," written on a drive from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. Meanwhile, watching his graceful fingers rendering bebop, I realize that no matter how dazzling and intricate his conceptions, the legato flow of his lines makes it all sound too classical for some. There's not much "street" in Fred, but that's one of the things that makes him unique. Another is that he rarely settles into a reliable groove; he offers new ideas at every turn, keeping the listener intently engaged. Meanwhile, Monk appears in "Think of One," and later with a wonderfully extended version of "Bemsha Swing," which opens the CD. For me, the evening's highlight was the second set opener, "Endless Stars," Fred's new transcendent ballad that perfectly captures the night sky when it's far from civilization. It calls out for lyrics, and apparently has them now, on an upcoming CD with writer/vocalist Norma Whitstone, Fred, and Gary Burton. I can't wait to hear it.
The next week it's pianist Jacky Terrasson with bassist Sean Smith and drummer Eric Harland: same club, more dismal war news, but a totally different experience. For one thing, Jacky's fans were more likely to whistle and stomp, which they did, especially in the juggernaut first set when the trio hit the ground running with a radiant, expansive take on "Smile," the title track of their new CD. For another, I could see the drummer from my seat this time, and thus fully appreciate Eric's astonishing range of feel and technique, including using two sticks in one hand during "Isn't She Lovely" to hit the high-hat from both sides. Whenever Jacky is dismissed in the press as "loud" or "flamboyant" or "not fulfilling his early potential," it makes me wonder if we're listening to the same person. Perhaps his playfulness costs him critical points - it certainly did with Monty Alexander's early exercises in musical free association, when he also changed time, tune, and direction on a moment's notice (if that), with his bassist and drummer watching him intently, waiting for clues. Jacky has similar daring: he's not afraid to get very quiet, stretch a tempo out like taffy, play with the piano strings, or romp over any combination of polyrhythms - no matter which way he sprints, his guys are there. He loves using those major seconds - that childlike "Chopsticks" sound - and sends out an occasional "aah!" among his other enthusiastic vocalizations. He's clearly having fun, and it's contagious.
Spontaneity can also be catching, and Jacky's impish adventurousness had a happy effect on Sean Smith. Long admired for his melodic playing and writing, a first-call sideman for decades, I've never seen him so loose in concert. He was nearly dancing when the beat got funky on "Nardis." It was a treat to watch him watching Jacky - smiling at where his solos were going - and trading grins with Eric during their collective ride. The terrain included the whole CD, but this time "Autumn Leaves" took a side trip through "Straight, No Chaser" in a Latin groove, and "The Dolphin," which features a splendid Smith solo, was taken at a much faster tempo. (Sean's face said, "Well, okaaaay...why not?"). In the second set, Jacky did some beautiful solo musings on "Everything Happens to Me," and the group deranged "Bolero."
It's not often that I get a chance to see two master players a week apart, and savor their different brands of brilliance. And as we tremble on the brink of war, it was an especially good time for musical escapes.
Fred Hersch by Jos Knaepen