Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Fred Hersch Trio: Alive at the Vanguard

Palmetto Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Alive at the Vanguard

If you’re lucky, you’ll live to experience a “Once in a Lifetime” event.  Pianist/composer Fred Hersch’s trio is just such an event, and this album is the proof.

Since moving to New York City in 1977 at the age of 21, Hersch has been a significant presence in the jazz scene. He released his first record of original compositions in ’91, and since then has made almost 50 albums as a performer, soloist or leader of groups of various sizes. 

As Ben Ratliff noted in a New York Times review of a performance at the Village Vanguard in 1997, “Hersch is a master who plays it his way.” 

Hersch went public with his AIDS diagnosis in the early 1990s and has lived, and survived, a life that’s difficult to imagine. He has endured periods, on and off, when he was not expected to survive his illness; somehow, he fought through them. The worst such time occurred in 2008, when he developed AIDS-related dementia, fell into a coma that lasted for two months and, after awakening, lost nearly all motor control in his hands. After months of rehabilitation and therapy — and a refusal to accept his problems as anything but “temporary distractions” — he recovered fully. Since then, aware of the potential shortness of his life, he has worked incessantly and produced his best music. 

His peers, and those who know him, are well aware of his expertise. Hersch was the first solo pianist booked into the Village Vanguard, and has made numerous return appearances with his groups, most often the trio format. This double-CD is the most recent recorded “Alive” at this famous venue.

The first disc contains eight tunes; four originals by Hersch and standards by Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, Romberg/Hammerstein and Sonny Rollins (Doxy). Disc 2 follows up with three more Hersch compositions and standards by Styne/Cahn, Russ Freeman, Kern/Hammerstein and Thelonious Monk.

“What” is played, however, isn’t as important as the “how.” Each tune is masterful; I’ve never heard them done better. Although Hersch is the principal driving force, his trio companions — bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson — have much to do with the excellence of this music. They provide support without ever getting in Hersch’s way.

I’m aware that the phrase “they think as one” is overused by reviewers, but I simply can’t think of a better way to describe the excellence of the interaction here. 

Pick any track at random, and you’ll see what I mean. “Opener,” which kicks off Disc 2, is a prime example: An up-tempo series of chords and runs by Hersch establishes the beat, then Hebert overlays notes and chords that augment what the piano has initiated. A series of very tasty drum passages follows, and then the piano rejoins the group ... and the trio has been introduced to the audience.
I’ve never enjoyed a performance more, and you have two additional hours of such pleasure on this release!

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