Pianist Fred Hersch Brings an Unexpected Album Back to the Vanguard

by delarue

When pianist Fred Hersch got his first stand as a bandleader at the Village Vanguard – after innumerable gigs there as a sideman – he decided to record the first night. Almost twenty-two years later, he edited three sets worth of material down to a digestible eight numbers, a couple of originals mixed in with some animated standards.

How does The Fred Hersch Trio ’97 @ The Village Vanguard – streaming at Spotify – compare with Hersch’s more recent work?  This is party music. There’s less gravitas and more humor – although Hersch’s wit has hardly dimmed over the years, as his recent duo album with Anat Cohen bears out. The sonics here are a little on the trebly side, although the separation between instruments is good, and the ice machine doesn’t factor in.

Chronologically, this is the first live recording of Hersch leading a band, and the only one with this trio, Drew Gress on bass and Tom Rainey on drums. Hersch is bringing his current trio with bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson back to the Vanguard, which over the years has become his home away from home. The trio are there on New Year’s Day through the third of january, with sets at 8:30 and 10:30; cover is now $35. Then the pianist leads a quartet with the great Miguel Zenon on alto sax through the 6th.

The group work tightly shifting syncopation, latin allusions, a little coy blues and an even more puckish doublespeed crescendo in the album’s kinetic, practically ten-minute first number, Easy to Love. Gress’ amiably tiptoeing solo sets up a chugging one from Rainey. Hersch’s own righthand/lefthand conversation winds it up deviously. 

Hersch’s raindrop intro to an even more expansive My Funny Valentine is similarly choice. Rainey develops a tongue-in-cheek clave; Gress pirouettes, then dips into the shadows, a signal to Hersch to reemerge and quickly toss aside caution: a genuinely amusing valentine.

Three Little Words makes an aptly lighthearted, briskly swinging segue, followed by the dancing, Bill Evans-inspired original Evanescence, Gress leading a cleverly triangulated intro. There’s a subtle fugal quality to this dynamically shifting, Brazilan-tinged song without words.

Andrew John, a Gress ballad, could be a more spacious Donald Fagen, with some richly airy Rainey cymbal work. The take of I Wish I Knew has a loose-limbed swing and glisteningly dancing lines from the bandleader, while Swamp Thang –  the second Hersch tune here – opens with a deadpan strut that gets more evilly cartoonish. To close the album, they shift their way warily but energetically their way through You Don’t Know What Love Is, capped off by a ridiculously funny Rainey solo.