Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Fred Hersch Trio, “Alive at The Vanguard”

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The trio "specializes in high lyricism and high danger."
— The New Yorker

The title of this piece refers to the double CD that Palmetto Records [PM 2159] will release on September 11, 2012 which pianist Fred Hersch and his trio – John Hebert on bass and Eric Harland on drums – recorded at this legendary NYC club from February 7th-12th, 2012.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles have been devoted fans of Fred’s work, both in trio and solo piano forms, for many years.

In a detailed press release, Ann Braithwaite, of Braitwaite & Katz, the firm handling the public and media relations for the new recording, had this to say about Fred, his career and the new Alive at The Vanguard CD.

"A new piano trio recording by five-time Grammy nominee Fred Hersch offers the rare opportunity to recalibrate expectations about the most fundamental of all jazz settings. Captured in the heat of creative ferment at the Village Vanguard, the sanctified venue that has long served as the pianist's second home, Hersch's trio with bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson displays all the rhythmic daring, preternatural interplay, harmonic sophistication and passionate lyricism that makes it one of the era's definitive ensembles. Slated for release by Palmetto on September 11, the double album features a diverse array of seven scintillating new Hersch originals, four American Songbook gems, and seven classic jazz tunes. Reviewing the trio the week of the recording, The New York Times' Nate Chinen referred to the group's "stronger sense of itself."

"This may be my best trio playing on record, in terms of range, sound, being in the moment, and the way we play together," says Hersch, 56. "Not that I disown any of my former albums, but considering where I was three to four years ago, this is very strong, focused playing. And sonically I think it really captures the Vanguard. It sounds different than a studio album, and it should sound different, so you feel like you're there."

Hersch introduced his latest trio on his acclaimed 2010 Palmetto debut Whirl, a session that arrived with the freighted backstory of his miraculous recovery from a two-month coma so deep that his doctors feared he'd never regain consciousness (he turned the near-death experience into the wildly imaginative chamber jazz production "My Coma Dreams," a collaboration with librettist Herschel Garfein). Hersch had spent much of the last decade performing with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Nasheet Waits, a stellar trio that gently transitioned into his current combo. Hebert and McPherson had served in pianist Andrew Hill's last rhythm section and they already had a built-in history.

I've always loved John's playing." Hersch says. "Like Drew, I was attracted to him by his sound. He's from Baton Rouge, and his playing has a looseness that's great for me. He's also done his homework in the tradition. He can really play a ballad and he knows where the substitute chords are."

The album's revelation may be McPherson, though he's hardly a new face on the scene. A standout since he joined Jackie McLean's band as a teenager in the early 1990s, he spent 15 years with the alto legend. That, along with his work accompanying heavyweights like Hill, Pharaoh Sanders and Greg Osby, established McPherson as a forceful and resourceful post-bop player versed in the polyrhythmic vocabularies of Elvin Jones and Jack DeJohnette. But in Hersch's trio he comfortably embraces a less-is-more trap set aesthetic, with masterly dynamic control, quiet intensity and consistently thoughtful textural shadings. When it's time to flex his muscles, like the rollicking Charlie Parker blues "Segment" or his cascading solo on "Opener," which Hersch composed as a feature for McPherson, he plays with the requisite punch.

"Eric is incredible at what we call the transition game, going from brushes to sticks and other implements," Hersch says. "I'm not sure how many people realize that. He's kind of a sleeper. He knows the tradition in and out. He came up as a sideman with some great musicians and he is quite a magician himself."

Much of the time Alive at the Vanguard feels like a series of revelations. Hersch's touch has never sounded more vital or responsive, and the trio seems to breathe together, whether whispering the introduction to Jule Styne's "I Fall In Love Too Easily" or hurtling through the playful steeplechase of Hersch's "Jackalope." The album opens with Hersch's mysterious "Havana," a tune that floats on a McPherson groove that lightly references clave without being predictable.

Part of what makes Alive so rewarding is the way Hersch's music is an ongoing conversation with a pantheon of jazz masters. In a loving tribute to the late drummer Paul Motian, a musician inextricably linked to the Vanguard for five decades, Hersch's melancholy ballad "Tristesse" employs a distinctively Motianian harmonic strategy. "He writes deceptively simple tunes, with two voices outlining the harmony, but not in rhythm. It's something that Paul really knew how to do, that he sort of invented. I've played some of his music over the years," Hersch says, noting that he covered Motian's "Blue Midnight" on Whirl.

Hersch tips his hat to Wayne Shorter with the enigmatic "Rising, Falling," a harmonically intricate piece that seems to hover in mid air. He celebrates the imposing influence of Sonny Rollins with a fiercely swinging version "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise," a piece the tenor titan immortalized on his classic 1957 album Live at the Village Vanguard, and closes the first disc with an unusually slow rendition of the Rollins standard "Doxy," reveling in the tune's crags and crevices. He summons the spirit of another saxophone immortal with "Sartorial," a snazzy piece inspired by Ornette Coleman's singular fashion sensibility. "Lady Gaga has nothing on Ornette clotheswise," Hersch says. "I went over to his apartment and played with him, and he's always decked out. This piece reminded me of him."

Ornette's most haunting ballad opens the first of the album's three medleys that brilliantly link unlikely tunes, a Hersch trademark. He introduced his re-harmonized version of "Lonely Woman" paired with Miles Davis' ethereal "Nardis" on his fascinating 1998 tribute to Bill Evans Evanessence. The atmosphere gets thick with intrigue when he combines two minor key classics, Russ Freeman's "The Wind" and Alec Wilder's "Moon and Sand" (a piece he interpreted on his 1984 debut on Concord Records, Horizons). And Hersch closes the album with an exquisite, extended investigation of "The Song Is You," which segues into the middle of Monk's echoing "Played Twice," which is essentially played once. It's a sly and unexpected sign-off after an evening of thrilling surprises.

In many ways Hersch's ascendance to jazz's top ranks is a wonder, given his relatively late discovery of the music. Born and raised in Cincinnati, he studied music theory and composition while growing up and sang in high school theater productions. It wasn't until he was attending Grinnell College in Iowa that he turned on to jazz when he started listening to John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Miles Davis and Chick Corea. But the jazz bug really bit him when he went home for the holidays and happened into a Cincinnati jazz spot. He ended up dropping out of school and earned his stripes on the bandstand, with veteran musicians serving as his professors. After honing his chops for 18 months, he enrolled at New England Conservatory, earned an undergraduate degree and made the move to New York City in 1977.

Hersch quickly gained recognition as a superlative accompanist, performing and recording with masters such as Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, Billy Harper, Lee Konitz, and Art Farmer. Since releasing his first album under his own name, he's recorded in an array of settings, including a series of captivating solo recitals, duos with vocalists Janis Siegel and Norma Winstone, and ambitious recent projects, like his chamber jazz setting for Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," documented on his 2005 Palmetto album of the same name. As an educator, Hersch has shepherded some of the finest young pianists in jazz through his teaching at NEC and the New School. A leading force in galvanizing the jazz community in the fights against HIV/AIDS, he produced 1994's all-star album Last Night When We Were Young for Classical Action: Performing Arts Against AIDS.

If there's one thread running through Hersch's career it's the trio. From his first session with Marc Johnson and Joey Baron, he's pushed at the limits of lyricism and temporal fluidity with similarly searching improvisers. It's telling that his trio-mates have included versatile musicians such as Michael Formanek and Tom Rainey. With Alive at the Vanguard, Hersch has once again set a daunting standard that he's already scheming to surpass.

"When trio is right it's very strong, but also very fragile," Hersch says. "If it's right it's transcendent, and if anything is off, the whole thing crumbles. John and Eric are both incredibly alert. I don't feel like there's any ego. We're all trying to serve the music as it unfolds."

And here are Fred’s comments and thoughts about some of the music on the recording.

Alive at the Vanguard is my third recording at the legendary club known as "the Carnegie Hall of jazz clubs", in existence for more than 75 years. The special acoustics, the intimacy, the ambiance and the ghosts of the great artists who graced the stage here - all this contributes to the quality of the music created at the Vanguard night after night, year after year.

I love this trio - both John and Eric give themselves so completely to the music through their wonderful approaches to their instruments, their wisdom and their true creativity. This is our second CD, preceded by 2010's Whirl. In the intervening two years we have had many opportunities to play together - including some lengthy tours - and the band's collective sound has grown enormously. I feel that these discs really capture what this trio is about in all ways.

A few words about some of the tunes.

Havana came to me out of nowhere; I can't say exactly why I called it Havana, but the rhythm and romance of it seemed to put the romance of that city in my mind. I dedicated Tristesseio the late drummer Paul Motian. I had the privilege of playing a week with him at the Vanguard in January of 2010 with bassist Drew Gress and it was unforgettable. For bebop trivia buffs, Segment is the only Charlie Parker composition in a minor key.

I recorded this arrangement of Lonely Woman/Nardis on my Evanessence album in the 1990’s – moving Ornette’s tune up to E minor made the connection for me.

Dream Of Monk is from my 2010 multi-media Jazz theater piece My Coma Dreams. In this dream, Monk and I are in separate cages in a room; a man bursts into the room, gives us music paper and pencils and says, “Whoever can finish a tune first will be released!" I scribble like mad, finish my tune and I look over at Monk who is just in his cage, sweetly smiling. True to the dream, I wrote the tune in about 20 minutes.

Softly and Doxy are in my mind forever associated with Sonny Rollins one of my all-time jazz heroes. He plays Softly on the first album recorded at the Vanguard in trio with Wilbur Ware and Elvin Jones - one of my favorite jazz records.

Opener was written as a drum feature for Eric McPherson and he totally earns the dedication. Jackalope is a mythical creature( half jackrabbit and half-antelope).

Ornette Coleman is one of the snazziest dressers in the jazz world and Sartorial is my tribute to his elegance in this regard. Many jazz musicians play The Song Is You in an up-tempo approach, but when you slow it down you can really hear one of the greatest bridges in American Popular Song. And these days, the trio plays a Monk tune in just about every set and Played Twice is a lesser-known but fun and challenging tune for improvisation.”

Fred has his own website on which you can locate order information for Alive at the Vanguard and Fred’s many other recordings as well as checkout his extensive tour schedule through the end of 2013.

The worldwide editorial staff at JazzProfiles with the aid of the crackerjack graphics team at CerraJazz LTD and the production facilities at StudioCerra developed the following video tribute to Fred which includes a track from Alive at The Vanguard on which the Fred performs a solo version of Russ Freeman’s lovely The Wind and segues it into a trio version of Alec Wilder’s Moon and Sand.