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Fred Hersch Trio at The Village Vanguard

Dan Bilawsky By

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Fred Hersch Trio
Village Vanguard
New York, NY
October 26, 2015

While sitting in wait before a set at New York's Village Vanguard, the eyes are inevitably drawn to the various photos, posters, and odds and ends lining the walls—images and items that may seem random and incongruous to the unknowing eye, yet actually serve as a patched-together, semi-photojournalistic spread detailing the venue's storied past. You spot dearly departed legends inextricably linked to the Vanguard through recording and performance history—Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans, to name but a few; you notice shots of present-day elder statesmen—Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Roy Haynes, Lou Donaldson with Dr. Lonnie Smith—taken at various points in their respective careers; and lastly, you have photos that represent the here-and-now, pointing jazz audiences toward veteran artists who've ascended to a rarefied artistic perch and developed a special relationship with the club. Enter Fred Hersch.

A photo of Hersch—head partially bowed, turned, totally enraptured—hangs on the wall behind the banquette, signifying his place in the pantheon of pianists and world-class performers who've made their mark in New York's most treasured jazz spot. He's been a steady draw there for years, selling out sets whenever he holds court at the piano; he's recorded several critically-acclaimed albums on that very stage; and now he can say that he's celebrated a huge personal milestone in this subterranean jazz paradise. Hersch's sixtieth birthday fell on the second night of this run, giving some significance and historical weight to the trio's six-night stand, and a celebratory air still filled the room as the week came to an end. Friends and well-wishers greeted the pianist as he moved about the club before the first set, and the music that would come was met with due enthusiasm and respect.

While no two Fred Hersch shows are exactly the same, there remain certain hallmarks in his programming—songbook favorites, '60s pop/folk/rock material, the music of Thelonious Monk, and dedicatory originals. This particular set, generous in length and depth, contained all of the above. The trio opened with Hersch's arrangement of Irving Berlin's "Change Partners," an exciting number introduced with lightly twinkling piano flecks and found percussion sounds. "Sad Poet"—a Hersch original dedicated to the great Antonio Carlos Jobim—followed, bringing elegiac tones to the fore at first. Hersch would go on to provide spare comping behind bassist John Hebert, and that same comping morphed into communication. Both men seemed to finish each other's thoughts and ideas, and what started with a taste of melancholy ended with a bang: drummer Eric McPherson soloed atop a vamp, building from a percussive whisper to a roar. The dedications continued with "Dream Of Monk," a piece that not only honors Thelonious Monk, but also seems to be made in his musical image. Hersch's playing was portraiture in motion, Hebert seamlessly moved into the foreground to solo, and McPherson, in signature fashion, cut with and against the grain of time. As the set continued, Hersch found his way back to his youth via The Beatles' "For No One," the first of several breathtaking ballads on the playlist, and "Cockeyed Optimist," a number from South Pacific that referenced his early love of Broadway cast albums.

The title track from Hersch's most recent trio document—Floating (Palmetto, 2014)—came next, acting as something of mood cleansing partition to separate Broadway from bolder things—an intense medley of Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman" and Miles Davis' "Nardis" built with mystical chords, spiritual tones, and wildly bouncing and sawing arco work. As if sensing the need to pull back after that, Hersch turned to "The Nearness Of You," offering up this beauty all by his lonesome before McPherson and Hebert joined him for a rousing "Bemsha Swing." While that number was the official end of the set, the strong response it elicited helped to urge Hersch back to the piano bench for one more number: a heartfelt solo performance of his own "Valentine" that served as a parting gift worth savoring.

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