Fred Hersch Back at the Vanguard


SUNDAY NIGHT AT THE VANGUARD / RODGERS-HAMMERSTEIN: A Cockeyed Optimist. HERSCH: Serpentine; The Optimum Thing; Calligram; Blackwing Palomino; Valentine. McCARTNEY: For No One. WHEELER: Everybody’s Song But My Own. ROWLES: The Peacocks. MONK: We See / Fred Hersch Trio: Hersch, piano; John Hébert, bass; Eric McPherson, drums / Palmetto Records PM 2183 (live: March 27, 2016)

I laughed a bit at the press release accompanying this CD, which said that “Jazz is too often portrayed as…defined by blazing young artists. But there’s…a vanguard of players and composers who continue to refine and expand the art form in middle age and beyond, like Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Henry Threadgill, and piano maestro Fred Hersch, who is marking his 60th year with an astonishing creative surge.” I laughed not because I disagreed with it—I don’t—but in irony because I know several astonishingly creative jazz veterans whose names aren’t Shorter, Corea, Threadgill or Hersch who can’t get into prestigious rooms like the Vanguard unless they make table reservations like everyone else. Anyone out there have weeklong gigs available for Jack Walrath? The Turtle Island String Quartet? Byron Olsen? Jack Reilly?

Cincinnati native Fred Hersch left Grinnell College in Iowa to play jazz in his home town along with local pianists who already had gigs locked up there, like Steve Schmidt, Phil DeGreg and my own personal favorite of the 1980s, Ken Kresge. The difference is that Schmidt and DeGreg are still here whereas both Hersch and Kresge have moved on. Hersch’s breakthrough year was 1981, when he played with Art Farmer in 1978 and again in 1981, also playing at the Kool Jazz Festival (now, alas, renamed the Kool Festival and having nothing at all to do with jazz) in the latter year. He has since catapulted to fame, has been a faculty member at the New England Conservatory of Music on and off since 1980, and was the first solo pianist to play week-long gigs at the famed Village Vanguard in New York, where this set was recorded.

Judging by this recording, Hersch is a pianist in the tradition of one of the Vanguard’s most storied residents, Bill Evans, with touches of Lennie Tristano, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. He plays with a light touch, light swing and rich chord positions to create a warm ambience. His bassist, John Hebert, plays lightly in the background, supporting Hersch with sensitivity and good taste. Drummer McPherson is very interesting, creating cross-currents behind Hersch and Hebert and propelling the music with a predominant use of the snares and cymbals. On the opening track, for instance, once Hersch moves into the improvisation, Hebert becomes more animated whereas McPherson remains as animated as before, but the constant time-fractioning of the drums draws interest. Hersch also uses more time-fractioning here than Evans was wont to do, only returning to a steadier pulse for the ride-out.

Serpentine, one of five Hersch originals on this disc, also has a Bill Evans-ish feel to it, particularly in the modal construction of the initial theme. I found it interesting that, no matter what the pulse played by the other two, McPherson generally continues his drumming in the same vein. There is a certain classical bent to this track, not merely in the theme but in the style of the improvisation in which Hersch utilizes a wide range of classical techniques including triplets, trills, and double-time runs, all of them played in a “pure” piano style not that far removed from many classical pianists. In fact, the heavily involved and ornate development section proves to be one of the real highlights of this disc, so complex and involved is it. When Hebert begins his solo at 4:22, it is also curiously classical in feel, using a light, almost vibratoless tone and tending towards the high range of his instrument. During his solo, both Hersch and McPherson fall silent, at least for a time.When the drummer re-enters behind him, it is now in the form of very light snare and tom-tom taps. At one point in his solo, Hebert almost seems to be using a Spanish beat, following which a cymbal washfrom McPherson reintroduces the leader on piano.

The Optimum Thing, another original, is much jazzier and more upbeat. One might be tempted to say that it has an almost Monk-like feel to it, with its quirky single-note melodic structure, but I also heard it somewhat related to the work of Tristano or even Herbie Nichols. In both this and the preceding piece, Hersch eschews the use of the left hand almost entirely in terms of chording to employ a single-note style, here more jazz than classical in orientation. By the time we reach the three-minute mark, it is clear that Hersch is using both hands to play against each other to create a jazz fugue, which slowly accelerates in tempo until it fairly overwhelms the listener—at which point he cuts back on the complexity and just swings with the right hand. In this piece, McPherson is less complex in rhythm, generally employing a steadier beat or at least a more generally propulsive one.

Calligram is one of those medium-tempo swingers that has all but disappeared from jazz, with a “walking” beat played by the bass as an introduction. When Hersch enters here, he is playing a fragmented melody that sounds very much like the kind of thing Evans used to play with George Russell, except that it is more cryptic and less completely filled out. Both bassist and drummer suddenly double the time around 1:50, at which point Hersch becomes quieter at the start of his improv. Before long, it has become a three-way “trialogue” with the musicians in the trio all contributing to the evolving structure, which now becomes strongly bitonal, almost Tristano-esque. By the 4:30 mark, the cross-rhythms created by the three have become so complex that only the leader’s piano seems to be on a steady rhythm—and then, it suddenly ends.

Blackwing Palomino seems to combine the features of the previous two works, being somewhat straightforward and swinging while maintaining the feeling of “speaking” in minimal, incomplete musical sentences. The middle section, on the other hand, is straightforward swinging, not very far-out at all despite the use of some off-kilter triplets here and there. The trio’s wonderful unity of thought and feeling is evident throughout. Paul McCartney’s For No One is an unusual nod to a traditional pop tune writer, though played in a soft, Bill Evans style. Here McPherson stick to the brushes for much of the tune and Hebert’s own playing is minimal and delicate. This is Hersch’s showcase, and is followed by Kenny Wheeler’s Everybody’s Song But My Own in which the trio adopts a Latin beat and works through it in an almost minimalist fashion. The tune is reduced to its basic building blocks before reassembling them in Hersch’s own manner which eventually leads to greater rhythmic complexity.

The Peacocks is another strange piece, starting out in a strictly classical vein as a series of sprinkled notes followed by right-hand tremolos balanced by tremolos in the left hand. One can’t exactly call it Debussy-ish, however, because it bears a closer resemblance to the music of Granados or Albeniz, at least before settling down to a more conventional (albeit bitonal) melody with variants. Once again, Hebert plays lightly and McPherson is on brushes. I found this particular piece endlessly fascinating and almost sui generis; in the end, the music didn’t really sound like the work of anyone else but Fred Hersch, particularly when he adopts a definitely jazzy beat at 6:40 into the piece before returning to the more classical feel. Hersch also completely restrcutures Thelonious Monk’s We See in his own Evans-ish/classical vein, turning it into a series of countermelodies and restructurings of elements within the tune. Near the end, I had the odd feeling that Tristano, Hersch and Monk were playing all at the same time. Both Hebert and McPherson stay busy here.

As an encore to this set, Hersch plays his own piece Valentine, another soft, Evans-ish composition, and does so beautifully. This is a completely solo piece, no bass or drums, and leaves the listener with a feeling of a goodnight hug. All in all, a splendid album with many highlights.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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