REVIEW: Fred Hersch Trio with Miguel Zenón at the Village Vanguard, New York

Fred Hersch and Miguel Zenón
Publicity pictures
Fred Hersch Trio with Miguel Zenón
(Village Vanguard, New York, 4 January 2019. Review by Dan Bergsagel)

"Happy New Year – I'm hoping this year will be better than last."

It was at once a sombre yet optimistic welcome from Fred Hersch at the start of 2019. But reflection seemed fitting, with this latest of many residencies at the Vanguard coinciding with the release of live recordings from his first stint as a bandleader here, in 1997. And while Hersch was no stranger to the venue then, he certainly isn't now – weaving through the crowd in advance, his journey to the stage slowed by many hugs and greetings with familiar faces.

Plainsong was a pure opener, developing into a choppy dramatic lament with John Hébert's bass rising from the back of the stage – a warm-up piece to let everyone limber up for the evening ahead.

With their limbering complete, the introduction of Miguel Zenón on alto saxophone for Havana provided real energy to the stage. This was their first set with Zenón, having started the first half of the residency as a trio, and there was a clear frisson of interest and newness. The addition of a front horn provided cover to further free the trio – Eric McPherson snapping drums and dropping on the pulse. On Snape Maltings (a slightly unexpected call to a very small and personally familiar part of East Anglia) McPherson stormed on further, slathering on clicks, snaps, and pushing forwards.

Zenón is a judiciously chosen foil for the Hersch trio. Opening a ballad with a restrained sax and bass pairing, growing into soft percussion and fluid sax lines over subtle chord changes. Hersch remained so delicate during a ponderous bass solo.

The attention to detail was heightened when the quartet was cut down to two, with Hébert and McPherson leaving the stage to Hersch and Zenón for a very sensitive sax and piano duo – this format an opportunity for Hersch to leave the comfort, the natural habitat of the trio. But a real treat for the audience was when even Zenón cut out, leaving the audience's focus on the individual interest in Hersch's playing. He is one of the few who can hold a crowd enthralled so gently.

There were also allusions to Monk, both from the tempo changes, drum stomp and spare, relaxed keys on Dream of Monk, and the versatile rhythm section all pulling in slightly different directions on an arrangement of Let's Cool One.

As a venue the Vanguard is burdened with history; the intense stares of jazz luminaries rain down from the walls, the iconic stage at the thin end of a wedge carved by 7th Avenue and Waverly. This gig in particular has added layers of history, as something of a Friday night rerun of Hersch's first night as a bandleader here 22 years previously, some things certainly remain the same.

The room is a full house for the first set, with a queue attentively waiting for the second sitting. The 2/3 subway faintly rumbles by. Hersch still sits at a Steinway (although perhaps he didn't have to insist on bringing it in just for his gig this time). However we're missing the fug of smoke, and we're here for a quartet, not a trio.

Perhaps the biggest change is that, in comparison to the 1997 recordings, this band does feel like decades of development running the trio. It sounds more personal, more adventurous, with more variation. There are more originals, less need for leaning on standards. The 1997 recordings are a fantastic time-capsule, and still stand up excellently today. But they're not a patch on this 2019 Hersch outfit.

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