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Fred Hersch Pocket Orchestra: Live at the Jazz Standard

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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Fred Hersch has been known to push the envelope on many occasions—writing and performing music that has, time and again, crossed a myriad of boundaries of categories. And the pianist has done it again with Live at the Jazz Standard a record that happened thanks to the fact that the music of this concert was being archived. This album sweeps across a soundscape and works on the premise of a kind of 360-degree piano. Hersch utilizes the instrument as a melodic lead, harmonic interplaying partner and rhythmic contrapuntal cohort when the need arises. And arise it does, as Hersch—for this date—eliminates the need for a bass altogether. Richie Barshay is listed here as playing percussion. Normally semantics would not matter, but this appears to suggest something more than occupying the role of drumming, as in a rhythmic anchor.

It appears that the roles of each instrument—piano, trumpet and voice—are both melodic and harmonic, that of the percussion is harmonic and rhythmic. Thus the whole concept of the Pocket Orchestra, as Hersch refers to his ensemble, is both valid and a vivid reality. Each instrument layers the music by draping sound-upon-sound in delicate muslin-like sheets so as to create a ululating, living, ever-changing wave of notes rising and falling like an ocean of sound. The addition of voice enables Hersch to enhance the mood and emotion of the music, when desired and almost at will—especially on pieces that have an otherwise rigid (and by definition) form.

The addition of voice to "Invitation to the Dance (Sarabande)," which is a formal baroque sarabande, enables Hersch to add an ethereal romance to the song. Thus is created a beautiful dancing number that, despite its slow pace, also at times harks back to the time of a melodie espagnole, that is in the tradition of Monteverdi and Corelli. He repeats the device in "Canzona," another delightful swinging, moving piece. "A Wish (Valentine)," which rounds out the record, is another spectacular vocal piece. Not surprisingly, both lyric elements have been created by Norma Winstone, the remarkable British vocalist, who excels in the company of pianist John Taylor and Canadian expat trumpeter Kenny Wheeler.

Contrast this with "Stuttering," an energetic rhythmic vehicle for piano, perhaps the exception rather than the norm of this record. And to prove it is so, the track is immediately followed by "Child's Song," a gorgeous melody that appears made for the soaring voice of Jo Lawry and the darting trumpet runs by Ralph Alessi that appears to disintegrate delightfully into a playful mirage of glimmering trumpet and piano and percussion before returning to the original melody again. "Free Flying," another vehicle for the vocalastics of Jo Lawry, captures the playful nature of the form—a Brazilian loro complete with marching rhythms, harking back to an exquisite improvisation by Egberto Gismonti on his ZigZag (ECM, 1996). This record celebrates the relationship between voice and instrumental harmonics and percussion coloration, within the vast realm of the piano.

Track Listing: Stuttering; Child's Song; Song without Words #4: Duet; Light Years; Down Home; Invitation to the Dance (Sarabande); Lee's Dream; Canzona; Free Flying; A Wish (Valentine).

Personnel: Fred Hersch: piano; Ralph Alessi: trumpet; Jo Lawry: vocals; Richie Barshay: percussion.

Title: Live at the Jazz Standard | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: Sunnyside Records

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