Fred Hersch had me at the Monk bookends. The pianist draws from one of his favorite composers—a staple of his repertoire—to start and close Live in Europe, recorded with his working trio last fall at an acoustically pristine hall in Brussels.
His version of Monk’s infrequently performed “We See” feels likes smartly choreographed leapfrogging: Hersch and bassist John Hébert offer brief strands of the melody, which are answered by drummer Eric McPherson’s creative snaps, clicks, pops and rimshots; then a madcap dash through the bridge ensues, as well as a set of improvisations marked by much stretching, tension and release, and inspired interplay. A kind of playful intensity, too, informs Hersch’s closing unaccompanied version of “Blue Monk,” which alternates between laidback strolling and sudden sprays of colorful chord clusters. And Wayne Shorter’s music is given fresh readings, with the laidback-to-intense “Miyako” and hard-driving “Black Nile.”
The leader’s own compositions are the focus of the rest of the disc, with three pieces intended as tributes. “Newklypso” is a rollicking calypso named for Sonny Rollins, and the bluesy, slow-churning “The Big Easy” is meant to honor New Orleans novelist and music journalist Tom Piazza. Lush ballad “Bristol Fog,” nodding to late British pianist and composer John Taylor, is one of several tracks offering considerable solo space to Hébert’s earthy runs. There’s much inventive trio synchronicity throughout, including on the skittering “Scuttlers,” which segues sensibly into “Skipping,” the latter from Whirl, the trio’s 2009 debut. And “Snape Maltings,” its title taken from an oddly named British town, feels like a bent parade march, the kind, like nearly everything else here, that makes a listener want to join.
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