The influence of Bill Evans on the music of pianist Fred Hersch is clear. Indeed, he recorded his own tribute to Evans, ‘Evanessence’, which was released in Japan in 1990 and in the USA some eight years later. Another pianist of significance to Hersch is Keith Jarrett. But where Jarrett is sometimes given to excess and histrionics, Hersch’s limpid, exquisite piano playing developed a more disciplined persona long ago. In turn Hersch has also had a significant impact on pianists of a later generation, perhaps most obviously Brad Mehldau and Ethan Iverson, both of whom were former students of his.
Since 1985 Hersch has released forty-nine albums as leader or co-leader, often in a trio format, but also solo and as vocal accompanist and including two recordings with Norma Winstone, one of which also featured Kenny Wheeler. Over this time he seems to have found the Village Vanguard to be a most congenial venue. This is his fourth album to be recorded there. Indeed, he was the first person to play a week-long engagement as solo pianist at the New York City venue. Yet, despite all of this, he remains one of the more enigmatic of musicians.
For his latest visit to the Village Vanguard, Hersch brings along his regular trio consisting of bassist John Hebert and Eric McPherson at the drums. This trio has worked together for many years and has built an almost telepathic rapport such that they appear as three musicians almost breathing as one. The set opens with ‘A Cockeyed Optimist’, a song familiar to fans of the musical, coming as it does from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, but less often heard in a jazz setting. This could have been a mawkish reading, but as soon as the familiar melody has been dispensed with, the trio move into their own flight of fancy. A very satisfying up-beat opener. Up next is ‘Serpentine’, one of Hersch’s own tunes. Here the mood changes completely from the jaunty opener into an altogether more mysterious, near free form exposition, with the melody not immediately obvious to the listener.
There is another mood change with ‘The Optimum Thing’s’ bebop flavour. A contrafact constructed on the chord changes to Irving Berlin’s ‘The Best Thing for You’ which opens at a brisk tempo and cleverly accelerating to a gallop.
‘Calligram’, has echoes of Thelonious Monk and once again edges into freer territory where bassist and drummer share the musical ebb and flow.
‘Blackwing Palomino’, has a blues feel, with all three trio members exhibiting a great synchronicity and apparently named after a pencil. Another Hersch classic in the making.
‘For No One’ is another brilliant change of pace. Hersch is a master of the romantic ballad and this is ravishingly lyrical. The first statement of the theme when bass and drums join the piano is exquisite. The song was written by Paul McCartney and appeared on the Beatles’ album ‘Revolver’. The poignant melody is clear for all to hear.
Kenny Wheeler’s ‘Everybody’s Song but My Own’ has almost become a jazz standard. Here it is given a rather more urgent reading than is customary. Perhaps inevitably, this melody evokes comparison with the late British pianist John Taylor who often featured the song in his own repertoire and serves as a fitting tribute to him.
‘The Peacocks’ written by fellow pianist Jimmy Rowles is next and again one could argue that this song too has become a modern-day jazz standard. The introduction is almost foreboding but then gives way to a very delicate rendition of the familiar theme. This, for me, has to be the highlight of the album. In his solo, Hersch deconstructs and then reassembles the melody in masterly fashion without ever straying far from the sublime melody. At over ten minutes this is the longest track on the album.
‘We See’ follows and is a less familiar Thelonious Monk tune, being the title track from a Monk album from 1962. Conjuring the spirit of Monk and being full of fun and humour. You can tell that the Trio are really enjoying this.
As if to remind the listener, if indeed a reminder were required, Hersch offers a solo encore in the shape of his excellent ballad ‘Valentine’, one of his most popular compositions and a fitting conclusion to what was clearly an outstanding night at The Village Vanguard.