Alive at the Vanguard
In an interview for JazzTimes in 2003, Fred Hersch talked about why he loves the Village Vanguard: “When you play very, very quietly, it has a presence throughout the entire room. There’s a certain kind of stillness, a hush, that you don’t get anywhere else.” But this new two-CD set, his third recording at the Vanguard, is not hushed. It is audacious and extravagant.
Hersch went through a devastating health crisis in 2008, and was in a coma for several months. His full recovery is a story of extraordinary courage. The title of this album, and the vital music it contains, must be understood as his ringing, joyous, belligerent celebration of the miraculous fact that he is, in every sense, alive. “Havana” (one of seven new originals) starts as loose, infectious clave energy, then keeps getting denser and wilder. “Segment” (Charlie Parker’s only composition in a minor key) goes through a similar progression, from a quick theme like an outburst of elation, escalating to ecstasy. “Jackalope” is tight funk set free to run amok.
But there are also other moods and subjects. Hersch has a new trio that thinks as one. Sinuous bassist John Hébert and subtle drummer Eric McPherson support the full range of Hersch’s art. He is an imaginative interpreter of Songbook and jazz standards, and often places them in medleys with startling juxtapositions. Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” is moved up into E minor, pieced out in fragments across three trio instruments, then allowed to flow seamlessly into Miles Davis’ “Nardis.” Sometimes he slows a song down and lingers on its altered character, as on Sonny Rollins’ “Doxy” or “The Song Is You,” which contains previously unsuspected pensiveness.
And when Hersch plays a ballad that is already slow, what happens is deep and rapt. “Tristesse,” his homage to the late Paul Motian, uses Motian’s harmonic and rhythmic language to mourn his loss. “I Fall in Love Too Easily” is delicate and piercing. This album has some of that “certain kind of stillness” after all, that “hush” that so often mysteriously descends upon music made at the Village Vanguard.