Free Flying
Fred Hersch and Julian Lage

Fred Hersch's piano has been heard in a number of duet settings over the years, but this is only the second with a guitarist since his collaboration with Bill Frisell in 1998 (Songs We Know). Julian Lage was a child prodigy, invited to play with Carlos Santana at the age of eight, recording with mandolinist David Grisman at age 11, sitting in with Gary Burton a year later, and then joining the vibraphonist's group in his mid-teens, where he remains to this day and has garnered his widest exposure. Hersch and Lage mesh tightly on these nine tracks recorded live at Kitano in New York earlier this year, whether keenly supporting each other's improvisations or intertwining meticulously and spiritedly in contrapuntal flights of fancy. The selections include six previously recorded Hersch compositions, four of which are tributes to other artists, plus a new one for Jim Hall and tunes by Sam Rivers and Thelonious Monk.

"Song Without Words #4: Duet" begins with a piano ostinato that leads to an energetic, Latin-tinged theme and Hersch's throbbing, driven solo. Lage's counter lines are somewhat submerged until he spring forth with his own tantalizing improv, characterized by a variety of effective inflections and animated runs. The ensuing focused interplay brings both musicians into clearer aural balance before a dynamic unison thematic close. The bluesy, countrified melody of "Down Home (for Bill Frisell)" is presented by the pair prior to Hersch's playful, loping, and texturally diverse solo. Lage's statement is blues concentrated but engagingly unpredictable. Each provides the other with sympathetic and/or provocative accompaniment, with Hersch's noticeably more actively aggressive. Lage plays the yearning theme of "Heartland (for Art Lande)" with a delicate, refined tone. Hersch's exploration is touchingly tender, and Lage follows with formations that ebb and flow gracefully, culminating in a revisit of the melody that only reaffirms its beauty.

"Free Flying (for Egberto Gismonti)" is a dancing piece with the rhythmic energy of an Astor Piazzolla tango as much as some of Gismonti's own music, and Hersch and Lage undertake a wondrous, intricate dialogue that is nearly telepathic. A worthy title track if ever there was one. One of Sam Rivers' most enduring tunes, "Beatrice," is lithely delineated by Lage with Hersch's forceful chordal backing. The guitarist's vibrant solo is notable for the way its probing phrases and runs never coast aimlessly. Hersch's turn displays rhythmic ingenuity and contains some arousing two-handed counterpoint. The charming "Song Without Words #3: Tango" is more in the realm of traditional tango than Piazzolla's New Tango. Lage takes the lead and first solo once again, hitting in the process some dramatically deep notes in addition to strongly piercing ones.. Hersch's underpinning and his own rhapsodic creation evince his typically close attention and commitment.

The title "Stealthiness (for Jim Hall)" perfectly describes the fitful, stop-and-start nature of its theme and the improvisations that emerge. Lage seems here to have re-tuned his guitar to resemble Hall's distinctive metallic sound. Hersch's absorbing extended solo is lyrical in a somewhat eccentric way, and the duo indulge in a fiery sojourn previous to revisiting the tricky head with élan. Lage plays the endearing melody of "Gravity's Pull (for Mary Jo Salter)" alongside Hersch's apt elaborations, which the pianist sustains as the guitarist unveils another restlessly inquisitive solo. The pianist's own development is elevated by his active left-hand constructs that complement his cascading runs. For "Monk's Dream," the quirky dual harmonies of Hersch and Lage on the theme befit its composer, as does the refreshingly different piano solo, perky, skittering, and wry. He and Lage reengage with jaunty crosscurrents ahead of the guitarist's own daringly out-of-the-ordinary pronouncement, with its two simultaneous voicings.

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Scott Albin