Live: Fred Hersch Digs In At The Village Vanguard


Fred Hersch Trio
Village Vanguard
Wednesday, September 12

Better than: Whatever “the same ol’, same ol'” means to you.

I wish some neuroscientist (perhaps edgy violinist-turned-Columbia University neurobiologist Dave Soldier?) would conduct a study on the musical transformation of pianist Fred Hersch. It’s easy to use words like “miraculous” to describe Hersch’s return to the jazz scene after several months in an AIDS-related coma in 2008; the term came up again just yesterday in Hersch’s radio interview with WNYC’s Leonard Lopate. As Hersch piloted his working trio at the Village Vanguard last night, however, what crystallized for me is that his revitalization is actually two-tiered. His full recovery is indeed remarkable (Hersch had to re-learn basic skills like walking and talking before he even touched a piano), but what’s equally fascinating is how his playing has changed—in some cases, for the better.

Years ago, the pianist rang me up at the magazine I used to work for to complain that I’d compared him to Bill Evans; he felt too many journalists had done the same thing. He backed off some when I reminded him of 1990’s Evanescence: A Tribute to Bill Evans, which until then had ranked high in his discography, but he was adamant about getting beyond the racial calculus that seemed built into the evaluation of a white (and gay) man whose bop sensibility was imbued with his early classical training in his native Cincinnati.

I wouldn’t remove Evans from a list of Hersch’s influences today (last night the trio grafted “Nardis” onto Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman”), but it’s clearer now just how much his swing is his own. It’s evident in the feral way he digs into many of the tunes on his Alive At The Vanguard; he applies grit where once there was much more cursiveness and dazzle. I can imagine some of the new discs’ muscular brilliance being superficially described as “butch,” especially in comparison to his string of popular Nonesuch releases of the ’90s or the Walt Whitman song cycle Leaves Of Grass—though it’s worth noting that Hersch has been outspoken about the silliness of saddling music with meaningless descriptions like “gay.”

Last night the repertoire of mostly originals made comparisons between then and now even more stark. Hersch’s Latinate rhythms (“Havana”, “Mandevilla”) brought more rhythmic interplay with drivingly sensitive drummer Eric McPherson, his Monkishness (“Dream Of Monk,” “Skipping”) was more earthy and the pieces that exhibited classicism (“Sarabande,” “Boy”) found Hersch and bassist John Hébert splitting the difference between the old world lyricism and new world blues. The seamlessness of its inversions made the arrangement “Lonely Woman/Nardis” the highlight: He played Ornette Coleman’s melody in subtle meter against the rhythm-section’s stretched where’s-the-beat? vertiginousness, then slipped out of meter himself on the Bill Evans section, applying reharmonized multi-textures while Hébert and McPherson kept time.

One thing I noticed during Hersch’s radio interview with Lopate yesterday was the pianist’s tendency to overstate metaphors about “danger” when talking about the process of improvisation. That said, the concert proved that right now his playing is probably more intrepid than it has been at any time in his career. He has made a practice out of the advice he gave in a recent podcast to any young musician who feared making mistakes. “You’ve gotta get up and fall over a bunch and try things,” Hersch said. “And the irony, of course, is that when the music’s at its most dangerous and you pull it off, it sounds perfect.”

Random notebook dump: Anyone who thinks the jazz piano trio is dead, or that jazzers should move on from standards, should probably get a load of how attentive and enthusiastic the Vanguard’s audiences behave in the presence of both.

Set list:
Lonely Woman/Nardis
Dream Of Monk
You Don’t Know What Love is

Valentine (solo piano)