Fred Hersch’s latest album Live in Europe is the new paradigm. The pianist and his long-running trio didn’t even know that their live radio broadcast from Brussels last November had been recorded until the tour was over. When he found out that there was a recording, Hersch listened back and was validated that the band had killed it just as he’d remembered. Instant album! It’s streaming at Spotify; Hersch, bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson kick off a weeklong stand at the Vanguard on July 24, with sets at 8:30 and 10:30.
This is a very fun, playful, even quirky set. Beyond the fact that these three musicians are one of the rare groups in jazz who’ve been together long enough to develop near-telepathic communication, they’re in an exceptionally good mood and the result is contagious. The fact that they were just going out and having a good time onstage rather than officially making a record probably has something to do with that.
Hersch is one of the greatest – maybe the greatest – current interpreter of Monk on the piano, and the way he takes the opening number, We See’s riffs dancing further and further outside, up to a series of ridiculously good jokes, makes for a hell of an opening. Jousting, deadpan straight-up swing and some clever rhythmic shifts beneath the pianist’s increasingly marionettish pulse take it out.
The group work their way animatedly into Snape Matings with hints of a ballad that never coalesces – the fun is leaving that carrot in front of the audience. McPherson’s subtle vaudevillian touches and Hebert’s suggestion of dropping everything for a mighty charge are the icing on the cake. Scuttlers, which follows, is more of an improvisation on a similarly carnivalesque, Frank Carlberg-ish theme, followed by the aptly titled Skipping and its rhythmic shifts, the group reaching toward a jaunty, ragtime-tinged swing.
Bristol Fog – a shout-out to the late British pianist John Taylor – is a plaintively elegaic, lustrous rainy-day jazz waltz and arguably the album’s most affecting track, with a long, mutedly clustering bass solo at the center. Then the group pulse into Newklypso – a Sonny Rollins dedication – Hersch’s lithe righthand and McPherson’s irrepressible offbeat accents held together by Hebert’s funky elasticity.
The Big Easy, a balmy, slowly swaying nocturne, has Ellingtonian gravitas but also the flickering playfulness of the beginning of the show. There’s also a little wry Donald Fagen in there too, which comes further to the forefront and then recedes in favor of fondly regal yet relaxed phrasing in Herbie Hancock’s Miyako.
The group take their time giving Wayne Shorter’s Black Nile a similarly considered launch and then swing it by the tail. Hersch brings the concert full circle with a solo take of Blue Monk as the encore, pulling strings all the way. Bands who have as much sheer fun onstage rarely have this much tightness, let alone the kind of chops these three guys were showing off in Belgium that night.