Thirteen Ways is the most engaging album Fred Hersch has led or co-led since his '84 JMT duet disc with Jane Ira Bloom, As One. His celebrated introspection and lyricism has a tendency to be a bit precious if not leavened by the jocularity and probity that clarinet/alto saxophonist Michael Moore and percussionist Gerry Hemingway bring to the table (Moore and Hemingway's duo track, "Steel And Clarinet," featuring Hemingway's steel drums, is a useful gauge).
Subsequently, on this diverse, well-paced program, Hersch not only delivers the expected heart-peeling balladry (his own "Calm") and buoyant standards-bearing ("Speak Low" and "Star Eyes"), but cogently digs into some off-center compositions, as well. The most challenging of these is Hersch's evocative 16-minute title piece, comprised of 13 loosely-structured improvisations that mirror the sections of the Wallace Stevens poem, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." It is an absorbing work that taps the ambiguous, often dark undercurrents of the text.
Monk and Morton are two pianists not automatically associated with Hersch, so his full-bodied readings of the seldom reprised "Boo Boo's Birthday" and "Mr. Jelly Lord" are particularly welcomed. On Hersch's "Swamp Thang," he boldly melds bluesy panache and modernist angularity. These three tracks go a long way to undermine the simplistic "poet of the piano" hype generated by Hersch's Nonesuch songbook albums; Hersch is a complex, multi-faceted artist.
Two related Ramboy discs led by Moore are just as good as Thirteen Ways: Home Game features a quintet with Hersch, Hemingway, bassist Mark Helias and trumpeter Herb Robertson; Chicoutimi is a trio date with Hersch and Helias.