REVIEW: Fred Hersch Trio at the Village Vanguard in New York

The Fred Hersch Trio at the Village Vanguard
Photo credit: Jacob Werth

Fred Hersch Trio
(Village Vanguard, New York, 26 July 2017, late set. Review by Jacob Werth)

Wednesday evening’s late set at the Village Vanguard was an enthralling display of understated elegance, as Fred Hersch offered a mixture of new originals alongside several reworked standards from the likes of Monk and Wheeler. Rarely does a trio, in this instance featuring bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson, deliver such a convincingly synergetic performance without this aspect of ensemble playing appearing at some point contrived. Hersch’s soft, plaintive approach commanded precisely the appropriate response from Hébert and McPherson, whose supportive efforts reflected the quiet introspection of the trio’s leader.

Hersch drew on his classical influences for the introduction to the short, sultry opener Plane Song, an alluring, rubato exploration of conventional harmonic movements, overlapping and interrupting each other while the piece ebbed and flowed in and out of time. Following this was the partially blues-inspired groove entitled The Loop, which evoked the playful spirit of Monk, particularly during highly conversational alternating bass and piano solos. Throughout the night, the lightness of Hersch’s left hand served Hébert graciously, allowing him an appropriately uncluttered sonic space in which to improvise. Hersch's deeply considered comping approach prioritised sparseness; from certain vantage points one was able to observe his hands hovering over chords, one by one, thoughtfully favouring their omission for simplicity’s sake.

Hersch’s career has suffered earlier setbacks. In 2008, he recovered fully from an AIDS-induced coma lasting 2 months. Speaking to NPR, he said his playing surpassed its prior state, as he was required to completely reconstruct his technique in a remarkable display of fortitude. He was since moved, by the sudden death of a close friend, to write La Cantante (The Singer) in which his improvisations on Wednesday night opened up boldly after a sullen solo piano introduction. His angular runs flowed, harmonically transcendent, exhibiting his superlative melodic freedom. They were punctuated by weighty two-hand rhythmic figures that further dismantled what harmonic information remained. Following this, a Kenny Wheeler classic, Everybody’s Song But My Own, underwent some mind-bending metric disfigurement from the extraordinarily lucid McPherson. His interpretation of the piece’s compound time signature shifted the pulse into at least five different places, imposing a variety of rhythmic gears upon the waltz without abandoning any time-keeping responsibilities.

Hébert’s rich tone was a highlight of Hersch’s tribute to Jobim, entitled Sad Poet, which opened up as a duo. It was also during this tune that Hersch’s temporal elasticity became apparent as he demonstrated a loose, relaxed relationship with the time during solos. This seemed to aid him in the full exhaustion of his ideas, as he carried seemingly endless phrases across bar lines in a smooth, stretched fashion. Later, McPherson showcased his deft, light touch, which possessed remarkable intensity for its low dynamic, during his solo over a closing rhythmic figure from the piano and bass. After Stuttering, full of chatty interchanges during a section of what appeared to be time-no-changes, the trio moved onto its rendition of the standard You’re My Everything, in which McPherson’s wide, straight swing beat sat warmly beneath Hersch’s blend of brittle, searching melodies and rich block harmony. McPherson was now on his fourth pair of brushes. I was reliably informed that each set provided a subtle textural variation noticeable by the aurally attuned.

After a brief address, the trio followed with the ballad When Your Lover Has Gone where Hersch’s left and right hand frequently seemed to be in breathless conversation with each other. A seamless transition saw them launch into a uniquely reconstructed version of Monk’s We See, in which the melody was fragmented, reharmonised and interrupted by strident, menacing bass figures. What ensued was a delightful flurry of mischievous interplay, spritely and restless in its demeanour, marking an emphatic development from the quiet introversion of the first half of the set. An even looser interpretation of the head out capped off a superbly constructed evening made by a gripping narrative.

The Fred Hersch Trio appears during the EFG London Jazz Festival at Kings Place at 7:30pm on 18 November 2017.

LINKS: Tickets for Fred Hersch at EFG London Jazz Festival

Fred Hersch's website

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