Fred Hersch, At Home at the Vanguard

photo by Martin Zemin

photo by Martin Zemin

I try not to miss pianist Fred Hersch when he performs at the Village Vanguard. Hersch shapes the sound of his piano with care and fine calibration, which is doubly rewarded by the club’s celebrated acoustics.

I began my Wall Street Journal review of Hersch’s new CD, “Sunday Night at the Village Vanguard,” (recorded there in March) with an account of him on a recent August Tuesday night. As I wrote there:

“he projected the comfort of a man settled into a favorite easy chair…. As much as any musician, Mr. Hersch considers the Vanguard home. For any jazz lover the basement venue on Seventh Avenue South, which opened in 1935, resonates with history. Its pie-slice shape makes it gorgeously resonant in acoustical terms. For both reasons, musicians have long been moved to record there.”

I also pointed out that “this new release, recorded on the final night of a March engagement, highlights the continuing development of Mr. Hersch’s trio, now seven years running. It’s a wondrous vehicle, set in motion by Mr. Hersch’s music and his crafty interpretations of a wide range of material, but fueled largely by the imaginations of his inventive partners.”

Hersch made his Vanguard debut as a leader in 1996. By then, his career was well established. Yet Hersch has always been determined to do things his way. He resisted the invitations to play the club with all-star rhythm sections; he waited until he could bring his own band in, and that stubbornness has paid off.

I’d documented Hersch’s remarkable comeback from a debilitating two-month coma in 2008. Back then, he told me:

“People tell me that my playing is somehow deeper now since my recovery. I can’t judge whether that’s true or not. But I’ve always been determined to be my own man at the piano. And now, I feel even more of a desire to just be Fred.”

It’s hard to say how much his brush with death and the rigor of rehabilitation had to do with the clarity and exalted expression evident in Hersch’s playing these days, and how much of that is simply the natural maturation of a great talent, back on course. When I listen to Hersch now, the answer hardly matters.

The full review is below:

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Aug. 23, 2016

Sunday Night at the Vanguard

Looking at the special bond between a club and a composer.

By LARRY BLUMENFELD

New York

Not long into the opening set of pianist Fred Hersch’s six-night stand at Manhattan’s Village Vanguard last week, he performed a playful new original composition, “Begin Again.” Soon after, a wistful old one, “Sarabande.” He sounded gently glistening figures to start and end a composition by trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, “Everybody’s Song but My Own,” in between teasing complex possibilities from it with his trio mates, bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson. Throughout, he projected the comfort of a man settled into a favorite easy chair.

As much as any musician, Mr. Hersch considers the Vanguard home. For any jazz lover the basement venue on Seventh Avenue South, which opened in 1935, resonates with history. Its pie-slice shape makes it gorgeously resonant in acoustical terms. For both reasons, musicians have long been moved to record there.

“Sunday Night at the Vanguard” (Palmetto), Mr. Hersch’s new release, is his fourth recorded at the club. The venue figures prominently in his personal history, too. He first played there in 1980 with a 12-piece group co-led by bassist Sam Jones and trumpeter Tom Harrell; performed at the club regularly in the 1980s in bands led by saxophonist Joe Henderson; made his debut as a leader with a trio there in 1996; and in January 2009 served notice of his recovery from a debilitating coma by fronting a quintet on the Vanguard stage.

In the years since, Mr. Hersch’s recordings have displayed not just renewed vigor but a deepened intensity and a clearer, more complete musical vision. This new CD underscores the point that, at 60, he stands among jazz’s first rank of pianists, yet promotes no particular style. He plays it his way: with a light touch and a focus on melody one moment; swinging freely the next as he inverts harmonies or deconstructs forms; tender, then tough, then yet more tender, always shaping the sound of his piano or his band into something personal.

This new release, recorded on the final night of a March engagement, highlights the continuing development of Mr. Hersch’s trio, now seven years running. It’s a wondrous vehicle, set in motion by Mr. Hersch’s music and his crafty interpretations of a wide range of material, but fueled largely by the imaginations of his inventive partners. At the Vanguard, one could see how freely Mr. McPherson moves around his trap set, rarely settling into conventional drum patterns. On the new release, one can hear the manipulations of pulse that result from such activity, especially on a Hersch original, “Serpentine.” In person, Messrs. Hersch and Hébert often appear as if in conversation. Their overlapping phrases sound that way as recorded on “Calligram,” one of Mr. Hersch’s most daring compositions.

Mr. Hersch is a master song interpreter. If the lyrics to Lennon-McCartney classic “For No One” capture the distress of unrequited love, Mr. Hersch’s instrumental version here suggests what it means to sit with such pain; he inserts a knowing pause before what would be the sung line “she no longer needs you.” His investments in songs accrue over time. His first recording of Jimmy Rowles’s “The Peacocks,” 30 years ago, sounded authoritative; here, it is a showstopper of unanticipated dramatic sweep.

Mr. Hersch has a particular fascination with Thelonious Monk’s music, to which he devoted one landmark 1998 album and which he features during every performance. “We See” is one Monk tune he hadn’t recorded before; he alters it knowingly, without toppling the architecture or disturbing its air of mystery. Yet Mr. Hersch always returns to his own music. “Valentine,” his customary encore these days, ends this album as a gesture of pure beauty, offered without guile or compromise.

At the Vanguard last week, Mr. Hersch sat at the piano under the watchful eyes of framed portraits of piano-jazz masters Bill Evans and Tommy Flanagan, whose legacy he extends; and of himself, hung there several years ago. It seemed as if he were playing piano at home, beneath family photos. In a way, that was so.

Mr. Blumenfeld writes about jazz for the Journal. He also blogs at blogs.artinfo.com/blunotes.

 

Views expressed on this blog, which is hosted on BlouinArtinfo.com but produced independently of it, do not necessarily reflect the views of BlouinArtinfo.com.