Jazz CD Reviews

Fred Hersch, solo piano – Alone at the Vanguard – Palmetto Records
Fred Hersch Trio – Alive at the Vanguard – Palmetto Records (2 CDs)

A pair of terrific live albums - one solo and one trio - following the pianist’s six-month-long coma.

Published on September 11, 2012

Fred Hersch, solo piano – Alone at the Vanguard [TrackList follows] Palmetto Records PM 2147, 71:22 [4/1/11] ****:

Fred Hersch Trio – Alive at the Vanguard [TrackList follows] Palmetto Records PM 2159 (2 CDs) 58:03; 57:46 [9/11/12] *****:

(Fred Hersch, piano; John Hébert, bass; Eric McPherson, drums)

56-year-old Fred Hersch is one of the top American jazz pianists today and is much in demand internationally. He started out in music at an early age and composed his first symphony at age 12. Graduating from the New England Conservatory of Music, he was soon playing in NYC with such jazz names as Stan Getz, Lee Konitz and Art Farmer. He is also a music educator. Along with Gary Burton and Andy Bey, he has been one of the few declared gay jazz musicians.

Hersch has been HIV-positive for some years, and slipped into a coma for between two and six months in 2008 (the reports seem to vary). (I’m reminded of the tumor surgery of Pat Martino’s, but he had to slowly learn music all over again, and Hersch seems better than ever!)  Now he’s back and sharper if anything, especially on the trio album, which you’ll notice was not titled “Live at…” but “Alive at…”  Totally fitting. (Also, there was a pre-coma Live at the Village Vanguard CD.) Hersch was the very first solo piano performer to appear at NYC’s famed jazz center, The Village Vanguard, so he was very comfortable being recorded live there in late November and early December of 2010. He decided to release only the complete final set of the last evening there, without picking and choosing from the “best of” tracks recorded earlier.  It consists of nine tracks [see below].

It’s always a challenge for a jazz keyboardist to perform alone like this.  Hersch’s unique talents for playing around with the shapes and harmonies of a tune, but not in any way showing off while doing so, comes to the fore in these tracks. He really gets you into the music, listening to his spirited versions of these tunes.

TrackList – Solo CD: In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, Down Home, Echoes, Lee’s Dream, Pastorale, Doce de Coco, Memories of You, Work, Encore: Doxy


The new trio double album has 15 tracks taken from a week’s worth of sets at the Vanguard in February of this year. And three of the tracks merge two tunes. Their variety is wide-ranging: there are ballads, up-tempo numbers, blues, bebop, originals, show tunes and covers of tunes made famous by various jazz stars. There are dedications to Bill Frisell, Lee Konitz and even Robert Schumann!. There is a Thelonious Monk tune and a Brazilian track by Jacob do Bandolim. (Hersch was fascinated by the mandolin in his youth.) Among my favorites was the unexpected treatment of one of my favorite jazz standards, “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,” and the lovely, lyrical mix of Russ Freeman’s “The Wind” into Alec Wilder’s “Moon and Sand.” The lengthy closer is a medley of Kern’s ballad “The Song Is You,” turning into Monk’s little-heard “Played Twice”—which seems to turn the typical Great American Songbook tune upside down. The creative energy in Hersch’s playing here is something to hear. This is not one of those new trios where all three members carry out pretty much equal tasks—it’s clearly one where the piano is being accompanied by the bass and drums, skilled as the two are at it.

Often I tend to find piano trio CDs rather a bore. Certainly not this one.

TrackList – Trio CDs:
CD1: Havana; Tristesse; Segment; Lonely Woman/Nardis; Dream of Monk; Rising, Falling; Softly As In a Morning Sunrise; Doxy.
CD2: Opener; I Fall in Love Too Easily; Jackalope; The Wind/Moon and Sand; Sartorial; From This Moment On; The Song is You/Played Twice.

—John Henry




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