The Matt Herskowitz Trio Jams Out the Classics

It seems that about half of the lucky 150 or so people who saw the Matt Herskowitz Trio last night at the Yamaha Piano Salon had been at his Naumburg Bandshell concert last August that got rained out about halfway through. This was a makeup show of sorts, not heavily advertised, although the promoters took care to tell the audience at the series’ next concert about it. Which if everybody had showed up, would have filled the room to capacity many times over. Herskowitz is one of those rare rugged individualists whose music defies categorization. Is it jazz? Classical? Jewish music? All of the above, and more. He started out by making jazz out of Bach, surfed out Chopin and ended by taking Gershwin to its logical jazz extreme, with the most interesting material, his own, sandwiched in the middle. Academics call this stuff third-stream; crowds call it fun.

Much as Herskowitz has the kind of fluid, seemingly effortless technique that it takes to play Bach well, it was the jamming that everybody wanted to hear, and he delivered plenty of that with both fire and wit, respectively, on a selection from the Well-Tempered Clavier and then an amusingly loungey version of the Air on a G String. Emcee Midge Woolsey suggested during the intermission that the composers Herskowitz interprets so irreverently would probably enjoy what he does, and she’s right: Bach was no stranger to improvisation, for instance, and the others had to come up with their repertoire one way or another, jamming out ideas until they made enough sense to transcribe.

Bassist Mat Fieldes, who turned a third Bach selection into slinky funk, alternated between standup and bass guitar, a couple of times adding a snarling, dark chordal undercurrent; drummer David Rozenblatt hung back with a straight-up 4/4 shuffle until Herskowitz led them into 7/4 variations on a Schumann sonata, a portent for what was to come. The highlight of the show was an arrangement of several themes from Herskowitz’ own Jerusalem Suite. Through torrid torrents of Middle Eastern tinged chromatics, unselfconsciously warm, bucolic interludes and noirish bustle, Herskowitz painted a complex and compelling picture. As they switched to Chopin, they hit a surf music interlude and then Rozenblatt switched to a wry disco beat as the bass ran a wary minor-key hook over and over, anchoring Herskowitz’s alternately bluesy and acidically chromatic runs.