Time has only made the members of this trio more adventurous as well as accomplished.
Fred Hersch Trio: Sunday Night at the Vanguard, featuring John Hébert, bass, Eric McPherson, drums. Palmetto Records
By Michael Ullman
Charles Mingus used to say that his best album was his last album, and Ellington his next one, but I don’t remember pianist Fred Hersch making that kind of pronouncement. So we should take heed when he tells us how he feels about his first set at the Village Vanguard on March 27, 2016, when his trio recorded Sunday Night at the Vanguard.
In the album notes, Hersch explains that he decided at the last minute to record because: “I just had a feeling that I can’t explain—that some special music was going to happen.” It did, and Hersch couldn’t sound more pleased: “I could tell by the first notes of “A Cockeyed Optimist” that we were ‘in the zone’—and I feel that we stayed there for the entire set. We captured lightning in a bottle.”
He attributes the blaze partially to the fact that he has played with this exemplary trio for seven years. Time has only made them more adventurous as well as accomplished. We can hear the collective daredeviltry from the first number, Richard Rodgers’ A Cock-eyed Optimist.” Hersch states the melody in a relaxed manner and then begins to improvise. Bassist Hébert, almost as a challenge, jumps in and leads the proceedings in a indirect harmonic direction while McPherson keeps up a restless chatter that, somehow, never conflicts with what his colleagues are doing. Later it’s Hersch who stretches the harmonic basis of the tune; in one eight bar segment he suddenly indulges in a series of off-beat staccato notes, cranking up a rattling conversation with the drums. The trio executes a graceful diminuendo to end the tune.
These musicians trust each other. McPherson, on cymbals, opens the Hersch composition “Serpentine,” an aptly named wandering tune that is the freest sounding piece on the disc. These three voices have rarely sounded so independent and integrated at the same time; Hersch plays lyrical lines with a mischievous hint (a coy trill) of classical music. Hébert’s ensuing bass solo kicks off with a Spanish-sounding trill of his own over the castanets of McPherson. The marriage of spontaneity with an undeniable lyricism is very impressive. “The Optimum Thing,” which follows, is a more conventionally swinging piece, but again the interchanges amongst the three are exemplary. What sounds, at the beginning, to be a bass solo changes when Hersch re-enters sotto voce — suddenly it’s a duet, as Hersch strums a chord quietly with the pedal on, and then participates more boldly. If he interrupted Hébert, it was for the sake of animating the conversation. There are two more originals, including “Calligram,” which is dedicated to French pianist Benoit Delbecq.
Then, before a solo encore, we are given four carefully chosen covers, including Paul McCartney’s “For No One,” which has never sounded more lovely, “Everybody’s Song But My Own” by the late trumpeter Kenny Wheeler (he recorded it on Flutter By, Butterfly), Monk’s “We See,” and a longtime favorite of mine, Jimmie Rowles’ “The Peacocks,” made famous by Stan Getz. It’s a favorite of Hersch’s too…if I’m correct, this is his fourth recording of the tune. Interestingly, Hersch doesn’t play Monk with the latter’s askew percussiveness: instead, he juices the piece up with tempo changes, arch hesitations (carefully filled in by McPherson), and by whimsical phrases high in the treble. In other words, Hersch makes it his own. His, and his trio’s.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.