Lyrical Piano Icon Fred Hersch Hasn’t Played the Vanguard Since January, So He Must Be Back This Month
The Vanguard is pianist Fred Hersch‘s home base, and it’s been six months since he played there. So he’s due, and he’s back for a stand starting on July 23 through the 28th with his long-running, conversational trio, bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson. Sets are at 8:30 and around 10; cover is the usual $35.
These days Hersch has been releasing almost as many albums as he does weeks at the Vanguard. The latest one, Begin Again – streaming at Spotify – is a real change of pace, a lavishly orchestrated collection of tunes from throughout his career, recorded with German jazz orchestra the WDR Big Band. With his trio, Hersch is all about clever conversations, and playfulness, and singleminded attention to a song’s emotional center. This one, maybe unavoidably due to the sheer size of the project, is more about how much epic grandeur Hersch’s translucent tunes are suited to. Answer: a lot. Vince Mendoza’s arrangements are sharp and often surprisingly restrained. On one hand, given the joie de vivre and humor in Hersch’s writing, it must have been hard to resist the temptation to go completely epic with them. On the other, there’s a lot of gravitas on this record.
The band punches in and out throughout the cleverly dancing, triumphant metric shifts of the opening, title track, with a long, hushed, suspenseful interlude and a coda that’s gone in a flash. Alto saxophonist Johan Horlen rises from a gentle intro to a joyous peak over a lustrously majestic backdrop and Hersch’s steady neoromantic phrasing in Song Without Words #2: Ballad, high reeds and muted brass adding extra lustre.
A lot of Hersch’s vast back catalog doesn’t stay in one place for very long, and the version of Havana here is characteristic, Ernesto Lecuona glimmer followed by a punchy, ebullient jazz waltz with a stormy Paul Heller tenor sax solo. The desolate big-sky intro to Out Someplace (Blues for Matthew Shepard) is chilling; the band’s violence afterward is only slightly less so.
Maybe because of the size of the lineup, Hersch amps up his attack on the fugal lines of Pastorale – a standout, classically-inspired track from his brilliant 2011 Alone at the Vanguard album. The oldest number here is the vividly overcast yet kinetic Rain Waltz, brmming with artful orchestral interpolation orchestra amid Hersch’s incisive articulation. Trumpeter Ruud Bruels’ moodiness and alto sax player Karolina Strassmeyer’s more energetic spot foreshadow a titanic, brassy crescendo .
The album’s longest number, The Big Easy begins with a moody On Broadway sway, then slowly edges toward jubilation, punctuated by trombonist Ludwig Nuss and trumpeter Andy Haderer’s easygoing, coyly muted solos. The bustling, tropically-tinged Forward Motion makes quite a contrast. The album’s final cut is The Orb, from Hersch’s Coma Dreams suite, Hersch working his way cautiously from a uneasy, starlit Lynchian tableau to warm lyricism. Deep stuff from a deep guy.