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Fred Hersch Trio: New York, NY, July 19, 2011

Warren Allen By

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Fred Hersch Trio
The Village Vanguard
New York, NY
July 19, 2011

It's reassuring to see that, within the highly fragmented and divided genre of jazz, a player like Fred Hersch flourishes and pushes the music forward as a modern form. He plays it like it doesn't need an explanation, which is to say he plays jazz at its very best. He eschews easy definitions—playing in a variety of contexts from solo piano, to a variety of trio settings, to the bizarre instrumentation of his "Pocket Orchestra," and even invokes the traditions of dance in his work. Too raw and idiosyncratic to be a lounge player, and too lyrical and poignant to be grouped with his generation's conservatory hotshots, Hersch consistently avoids easy classification, yet ranks among the most powerful pianists in modern jazz.

Coming off a collaborative tribute to Charles Mingus at East Village avant-garde haven The Stone, Hersch traveled west to open a weeklong trio engagement at The Village Vanguard alongside longtime cohorts Eric McPherson on drums and John Hébert on bass, shortly after releasing the first ever solo piano album recorded in the venue, Alone at The Vanguard (Palmetto, 2011). Leading his second night off with "From This Moment On," Hersch brought an edge to the Latin-tinged standard with odd rhythmic flourishes to give it a certain off-kilter edge that never obscured a warm, breezy feeling evocative of the barely heat wave from a few days beforehand.

Hersch's "Opening," a showcase written specifically to accommodate McPherson's show-stopping drum solo, kept the playful, buoyant vein going. As McPherson's sticks tapped along the edges of his drums, dancing in the black polish of the piano, he answered them with big hits of bass drum, to create a powerful trading of percussive ideas that said a lot without any unnecessary bombast. Instead, he built up to a bang with an almost orchestral grandeur, before trickling back down.

"Jackalope" bounced out some sweet hard bop, as Hersch testified around a tasty bass vamp from Hébert, while "Sad Poet" (for Antonio Carlos Jobim) gave him a chance to show off just a flicker of his solo playing before McPherson and Hebert came in with just the slightest complimentary touches. Songs like these showed just how well this band fits each other, with no one person needing to do too much, but serving perfectly to frame Hersch's sound at the core.

The title track to last year's Whirl (Palmetto, 2010) also paid tribute, this time to ballet dancer Suzanne Farrell, as Hersch spoke to how the motions of the music drew "from the way she spins." The melody had an air of the dramatic to it, brought out more and more by the centrifugal. Here falls dropped out from Hersch's left hand to cascade down, seemingly out of nowhere, before turning and cutting back up the register.

Of course, the impact of The Vanguard as a place should never be discounted; even with the rumble of a passing subway or occasional accompaniments from the servers and their bottles, the sound was amazing all night long. The piano sounded like it had just been tuned, and perfectly to Hersch's specifications. The acoustics all over were simply gripping, carrying the pulse of the trio and dishing it out table by table, so that even people in the farthest corners felt the immediacy of McPherson's ride cymbaland Hersch's middle C. Vinyl wishes it sounded that warm and welcoming.

Closing out the night was the achingly beautiful "Endless Stars," with its lullaby-like meanderings of solo piano, and bell-like block chords, followed by a "If Ever I Should Lose You." Finally, the trio closed with "Evidence"—because every set needs a little Thelonious Monk, according to Hersch. These last two tunes were striking in a way, because they demonstrated just how good standards can be in the hands of truly modern players. The ties to tradition need not be fully severed, but nor need they be religiously adhered to either. With the right people at the helm, music works—regardless of the decade when it was written.

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