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Alive at the Vanguard-- Fred Hersch Trio

The word "Alive" in the title of this two-CD set certainly describes the tremendous vitality of the music, but more likely refers to the fact that Fred Hersch is a survivor, having recovered from a major health crisis in 2008 that kept him in a coma for two months. Hersch is more than just a survivor, however, as he continues to grow his technical skills and emotional range as a pianist. His acclaimed 2010 comeback CD, Whirl, introduced his new trio with bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson (Andrew Hill's last rhythm team) replacing Drew Gress and Nasheet Waits. As good as Whirl is, Alive at the Vanguard is even better. Hersch himself has stated, "This may be my best trio playing on record, in terms of range, sound, being in the moment, and the way we play together." Alive is actually Hersch's third recording from the Vanguard, following Live (2003) and Alone (2011). It's quite evident that when the pianist descends those well-traveled stairs into the Vanguard, magic happens.

Hersch's "Havana" captures the feel of refined Cuban parlor music to start, but adds a briskness of purpose and rhythmic intensity as it progresses. The interaction of the trio as they cavort around the subtle clave makes for mesmerizing listening that entices rather then overwhelms. "Tristesse" was composed by Hersch in Paul Motian's style, "with two voices outlining the harmony, but not in rhythm," in this case piano and bass. A ballad that expresses both sadness and hope, it finds Hersch's vibrant runs in his solo shadowed by Hébert's deep-toned figures, as McPherson mixes snare and cymbal accents effectively. As Hersch points out in his notes, "Segment" is the only Charlie Parker tune composed in a minor key, and between the leader's treatment and McPherson's drumming, it sounds at times like Thelonious Monk with Frankie Dunlop. The development of Hersch's extended multi-faceted solo is enthralling, and Hébert's surging bass lines are an added plus. Hersch's acrobatic two-handed unison and counterpointed passages carry this track from Monk to Bud Powell, but overridingly it's pure Hersch at his brilliant best.

"Lonely Woman / Nardis" has McPherson's intriguing mallet intro to Ornette Coleman's tune soon joined by Hébert and then Hersch's theme reading, after which the trio intertwine absorbingly up to and after the pianist initiates the Miles Davis melody and embarks on a swirling, probing improv that stirs up the works' thematic material in both deft and revelatory ways. Hébert's profound solo is a creative and technical wonder. "Dream of Monk" is a selection from Hersch's jazz theater production "My Coma Dreams," and starts out with the composer nearly channeling Monk's pianistics. Hébert's solo displays great clarity and presence. Hersch's light, pinpoint touch in his own exploration, as well as his individual approach, are what separates him from Thelonious until the reprise. Hersch's introspective "Rising, Falling" floats, but not weightlessly, as its melodic twists and turns contain a subdued spark. The ebb and flow of the trio has both heartfelt and majestic elements, and this performance reinforces Hersch's stylistic connection to Bill Evans.

The rendition of "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise" honors Sonny Rollins, who played it on the first album ever recorded live at the Vanguard. Hersch commences as Rollins did, slowly articulating the theme before his restlessly inventive solo, which utilizes a diverse variety of schemes--both harmonically and rhythmically--to exhaustively examine the theme. For Rollins' own "Doxy," Hersch plays a contemplative intro, succeeded by an improvisation that is more aggressive, crisp, bluesy, and soulfully strutting. McPherson's accompaniment complements his phrasing in mirror-like fashion. "Opener," written for the drummer, places McPherson front and center both prior to and after Hersch's pulsating, unrelenting solo. The drummer's responsiveness during the pianist's invention is exemplary, but it's his closing solo, a blend of finesse and controlled power, that is most impressive.

Hersch's unsurpassed sensitivity in interpreting the superior standard "I Fall In Love Too Easily" is matched by Hébert and McPherson. The bassist practically sings his solo, so immediate and openhearted is its execution. His and the drummer's keen reactions to Hersh's subsequent cascading and ecstatic declaration are simply marvelous. The title "Jackalope" refers to a creature from Hersch's imagination, half jackrabbit, half antelope. Hébert and Hersh's opening vamp, the circular theme, and McPherson's shifting rhythms concoct a bewitching brew. Hersch's solo attack fluctuates from fractured, to chordal, to arpeggiated, and never flags. "The Wind / Moon and Sand" finds a transcendent Hersch, expansive and moving, playing a four minute rubato opening statement to the medley of Russ Freeman and Alec Wilder tunes. He then continues on with Hébert and McPherson's tasteful support for another seven minutes of superlative thematic improvisation.

"Sartorial" is a piece Hersch wrote in acknowledgement of Ornette Coleman's distinctive fashion sense. This piece indeed has dazzle, flash, and whimsy, as the pianist prances along in his effervescent solo, with McPherson providing tap dance-like stimulation while Hébert crafts a more grounded underpinning. Hersch navigates "From This Moment On" with a more lighthearted sensibility than is customary, but what it may lack in drama is more than made up for by the pianist's striving lucidity. The bassist and drummer's shuffling rhythm construct enhances the selection's appeal. The recording's third medley and final track, "The Song Is You / Played Twice," offers a highly involving slow-tempo version of the standard that reenergizes the often played tune. Hersch's rhapsodic musings are supported fully by the perceptive expressions of Hébert and McPherson. About halfway through this 14-minute journey, Monk's lesser known "Played Twice" makes a whirlwind appearance for the duration, delightfully off-kilter, full of surprises, and remarkably conceived.

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Scott Albin