LIVE IN EUROPE / MONK: We See. Blue Monk. HERSCH: Snape Maltings. Scuttlers. Skipping. Bristol Fog. Newklypso. The Big Easy. Miyako. SHORTER: Black Nile / Fred Hersch Trio: Hersch, pn; John Hébert, bs; Eric McPherson, dm / Palmetto Records (no number), available from Apple/iTunes & Amazon. (live: Brussels, November 24, 2017)
In the liner notes for this release, pianist Fred Hersch admits that this album is “one of many” that he only discovered was being record live after the fact.
The performances here are in Hersch’s usual style: harmonically interesting but emotionally laid-back. Nonetheless, he does a great job picking apart Thelonious Monk’s We See and putting it back together his own way, and his musical partners, Hébert and McPherson, are right there with him. One of this trio’s great qualities is the way it “breathes” together; listen for the way they shade the volume, down to a quiet piano and then slowly back up again. This is superb music-making.
The first of several originals on this disc, Snape Maltings (also known in England as the Maltings Snape—I always thought it sounded like a creature that the late Edward Gorey would have drawn) is a curious piece, almost put together of short fragments that somehow make up a complete tune. Hersch and the trio has fun with this one, playing the somewhat surrealistic music in an appropriately surreal, almost disjointed fashion. This is really almost a composition on the classical sense of the word, only given a quasi-jazz beat (at times) and including improvised passages…including a few by Hébert on bass that are superb. Scuttlers begins with an unusual drum solo (sounds like sticks on the rim of his snare drum) which leads into Hersch’s piano, and once again the music is a bit odd, almost sounding atonal, and again resembling classical music, although in this case very modern classical. It reminded me of the late Cecil Taylor, except with the walls and floors filled in (Cecil gave you structures without them). Skipping is in the same vein, except that about a third of the way through, a jazz pulse makes itself felt and the music begins to swing, but the overriding feeling is still that of a real composition.
With Bristol Fog Hersch presents us with a slow waltz in the Bill Evans vein. The quietude of the music is enhanced by the omission of the drums; most of it is a duet between Hersch and Hébert, and a lovely one it is, too. When McPherson does enter, it is to play very softly with brushes. Newklypso is, as the title infers, a jazz calypso written as a tribute to “Newk,” a.k.a. Sonny Rollins, evidently inspired by his classic St. Thomas. Not as deep or complex as the preceding pieces, it is nonetheless an excellent piece, and Hersch plays it with great wit and invention. This one also includes a rather fulsome drum solo for McPherson, which rises to a crescendo before quieting down to allow Hersch to re-enter.
The Big Easy (for Tom Piazza) is (sort of) an old-fashioned medium-slow swinger, which Hersch invests with a few crushed chords and outside playing. Miyako is another slow tune, something of a ballad, and more tonal than several of the originals in this concert, but not lacking in imagination when it comes to the solos…well, Hersch’s. since he pretty much dominates this track, and well he should since he has so much to say in this piece, including some cute little tempo shifts towards the end. This morphs into Black Nile, an uptempo original, via a nice drum solo before Hersch enters to establish the melody and go on from there. The trio really swings on this one, with Hébert propelling him with a nice, light, John Kirby-like touch. Hersch takes the music into somewhat exploratory territory but always finds a way back to the home key and keeps the melody going, one way or another, throughout the piece.
The set ends with Hersch’s solo performance of Blue Monk as an encore. He completely deconstructs it in the intro, slowly playing little bits of the original tune until you start to recognize it, though he only plays the original melody as written in the last chorus. I think Monk himself might have really enjoyed this treatment, as his own solo piano performances were also experimental excursions into deconstruction and reconstruction of his own (and others’) music. So few modern jazz albums end on such a high level of performance and invention as this!
A “found object,” indeed. Hersch found a gem when these tapes showed up!
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
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