Jazz CD Review: Fred Hersch Trio ’97 @ The Village Vanguard

By Steve Feeney

With two able bandmates, Fred Hersch is inspired to unwind a nice set of standards and a few originals.

Fred Hersch Trio ’97 @ The Village Vanguard (Palmetto)

Checking the Arts Fuse archives, I find there’s been no shortage of reviews of the work of pianist Fred Hersch. And why not? He has a Boston connection, having studied and taught at the New England Conservatory. He’s a prolific artist. And, most of all, he’s very good.

As Hersch notes in his memoir Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz, he tends to move in multiple directions. In 1997, he was both taking his jazz piano trio work into new reaches and attempting grander musical projects through a new association with the prestigious Nonesuch label.

Fred Hersch Trio ’97 @ The Village Vanguard is a previously unreleased recording of the Hersch Trio during its period in the jazz trenches at the subterranean Vanguard in NYC. It was Hersch’s first gig there as a leader, and this is the only available live recording of him with this threesome. It’s a welcome addition to the list of more enduring items in his formidable discography.

Bassist Drew Gress and drummer Tom Rainey complete what was arguably one of the pianist’s most intriguing trios. As of 1997 they had already recorded and performed together for several years, and would carry on for a few more before Rainey, and then later Gress, were replaced in the new century.

Rainey, who I’ve had the privilege to hear play a few times in edgier ensembles, is very much an order-out-of-chaos sort of percussionist. Here, he’s rhythmically solid where he needs to be but brings an awareness of openings for this trio to reach out into more open-ended discourse.

Gress is a pliant and conversational bassist who weaves in and out, framing moments and intuiting those to come (under the watchful eye of the leader). With two able bandmates, Hersch is inspired to unwind a nice set of standards and a few originals.

The highlight of the two Hersch-penned selections is a take of “Evanessence,” his early tribute to the great Bill Evans. Though he bristles at critical references to Evans as an audible influence on his work, Hersch has considerable respect for the legendary pianist, especially for his early work.

Pianist Fred Hersch. Photo: Thomas J. Krebs

A Gress solo flutters and then shimmers over Rainey’s taps before Hersch moves full speed ahead with a lively lead that is propelled by an infectious exhuberance. Not only is Evans’ distinctive style captured here, but so is his way of making a trio live and breathe.

The other Hersch original, “Swamp Thang,” serves up what someone once called a “gumbo ya-ya” vibe. It simmers slowly along; the rhythm could be described as a gentle lope. Then the blues come in with a vengeance as the leader’s flourishes spark an overflow of funk.

Thanks to the agility of Hersch, Gress’ “Andrew John” stretches a memorably delicate melody across a melancholy vista. Sweeping Rainey cymbal tones trigger a return to a satisfyingly contemplative reconsideration of the theme.

Standards fill out this very well-recorded set of trio music.

“I Wish I Knew” is an effective reminder of Hersch’s insistence that instrumentalists know the lyrics to what they play. In this performance the pianist captures the joy — and uncertainty — of a potential romance that’s not-quite-yet within reach.

Likewise, the Rodgers and Hart tune “My Funny Valentine,” is done just right, evoking all the faux-light drama of longing (as well as the crippling doubts) of someone in love. Gress unfurls an expressive solo that outlines the tune while pausing at the sweet spots. Mindful of the song’s final entreaty, “Stay little valentine stay,” the Hersch trio’s performance nimbly generates the requisite urgency and plaintiveness, making its treatment of the song’s ending masterful.

Steve Feeney is a Maine native and attended schools in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. He has a Master of Arts Degree in American and New England Studies from the University of Southern Maine. He began reviewing music on a freelance basis for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in 1995. He was later asked to also review theater and dance. Recently, he has added BroadwayWorld.com as an outlet and is pleased to now contribute to Arts Fuse.

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