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Fred Hersch: Alone at the Vanguard

Michael J. West reviews new album from pianist, a live solo set from his week-long residency at the Village Vanguard in December 2010

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Alone at the Vanguard follows a set pattern: alternating ballads and swingers (four originals, five standards) on solo piano. If that sounds routine, note that it’s made by a master craftsman, Fred Hersch, whose ability to refresh jazz routines is unsurpassed. This live set, the last from his weeklong December 2010 Village Vanguard residency, is a stunning achievement. It is also unpredictable.

For example, don’t look for typical jazz ballads. “Echoes” and “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” are downtempo, lush and gorgeous, but Hersch keeps a fast left-hand trill hovering beneath both, raising them to roiling storms-power ballads, if you will. “Pastorale,” dedicated to Robert Schumann, pays such faithful homage that it’s practically a classical sonata; only its chordal flourishes keep it grounded in jazz. Only “Memories of You,” with its gentle swing and delicate upper register, matches the ballad template.

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