At the Village Vanguard: Fred Hersch

Fred Hersch at the keys

photo by Steven J Sherman

Fortune favors the bold, so the man said, or at least the mildly curious. I was curious enough to go hear Fred Hersch’s trio play a set during his recent run at the Village Vanguard and the reward was far greater than my investment. It will be yours this fall, Hersch was recording the residency for release on the Palmetto label this September.

The pianist has gone through some extraordinarily trying medical difficulties over the past years, and they’ve had an unavoidable and important effect on his music-making. The art of jazz, creating and interpreting and listening in the moment, is as subjective as music gets, so what the personal history means for Hersch’s playing is different for himself and everyone in the audience, in the club or at home. My personal experience with him is that I admired the quality of his playing without every finding a lot of personal attraction in it. In my ears, there was always a self-consciousness in it about where he fit into the history and continuum of jazz that was off-putting, a kind of constant evaluation of what he had just played and was about to play in terms of how it related to other music and musicians, and only secondarily about expressing himself through jazz.

His more ambitious compositions were also unsatisfying. His Walt Whitman cycle was disappointing both live and on disc, and his smaller scale piano pieces, while pleasant, are jejune. The works suffer from too much politeness, they’re too careful, especially the Whitman piece where he avoids the musky, rude humanity and sexuality that makes the poet so wonderful. It’s perhaps unfair, but the vibe that struck me was that Hersch was always too aware of his status as one of the few openly gay musicians in jazz, a double-edged sword that brought him publicity and fans but also did too much to define him, especially in terms of the media outlets like NPR that often covered him.

I didn’t hear any of this at the Vanguard, what I heard was nothing but rich, flowing jazz, played with deep feeling, subtle and strong imagination and impeccable technique. The single set alone would make a strong, involving recording, so I imagine the main obstacle to releasing the disc will be to decide what doesn’t go on it.

Hersch always had an elegant touch, and now, having shorn away his self-involved discursiveness, music like “Just One of Those Things,” the set opener, both swings and breathes. With John Hébert and Eric McPherson accompanying on bass and drums, the pianist added personal depth and weight to Porter’s devil-may-care élan, thickening the harmonies with dissonances that had a rounded, mellow quality. Some musicians do this to add to the tension, Hersch gave the feeling that he needed the notes primarily for expression. That reveals him, as do his compositions, as more Romantic than Modernist, and at times his playing sounded like an aesthetic dialogue with Brad Mehldau, especially in his own post-bop minor-key groove, “Jackalope,” and “Havana,” both new tunes.

The connection is through Schumann, whom both Hersch and Mehldau know well, and whose piano music is full of harmonies and counterpoint meant primarily to express, not to structure. His colors are there in Hersch’s composing and playing, just as he’s also touched the younger pianist and the likes of Jason Moran and Uri Caine. They all makes Schumann swing! Hersch is also supple and fluid in latin rhythms, and his own “Sad Poet” and “Mendavilla,” a very fine habanera, had some of his finest playing. His trio is an equally fine ensemble, and everyone shined on the ballad tribute to Paul Motian, “Tristesse,” which was full of exquisite, involved thinking and playing, but neither Hébert nor McPherson are as expressive as soloists, and the bassist was consistently out of tune and often rhythmically uncomfortable when his voice was featured, things that may be keys in what goes on the disc.

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Hersch explored Monk as well, first with his own “Dream of Monk,” a kind of pastiche “Crepescule with Nellie” and “Blue Monk.” Hersch ran his own phrasing of the tune into his solo, and it was a little querulous and didactic, the one non-comfortable piece of the evening. To close, he wove together Kern’s “The Song is You” and “Played Twice” in a tour-de-force. The ballad was absolutely gorgeous, and his coy and witty touch with the Monk tune, revealing it in brief moments with the most skeletal harmonies, hinting at the blues but not getting stuck in that or the iron bars of Monk’s vertical structure, was true to both tradition and to himself, and ended the set on a ringing point of excitement and satisfaction. As good as last year’s Alone at the Village Vanguard was, this music-making with the trrio was even more musical, interesting and complex.

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