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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.

The upbeat pieces hew closer to expectation, though that’s a relative notion. The infectious original “Down Home” swings breezily, but can its Western-inspired melody and giddy-up groove (dedicated to Bill Frisell, but just as salutary to Gene Autry) really be “expected”? Ditto for Monk’s “Work,” on which Hersch merely nods in passing to its author’s skewed pacing and plays with the elegant flow of a river. And with his encore, a half-ballad, half-gospel arrangement of “Doxy,” expectation becomes irrelevant.

Even overlooking these stylistic upsets, however, Hersch’s playing is wondrous and inspired, his Evans-isms always apparent yet blended into his own lyrical tack. Let’s hear the rest of that week at the Vanguard.

Originally Published