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Fred Hersch Trio: Trio Plus Two

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There is life after the major labels, liberation even. Perhaps no one has benefited more from severance from a blue-chip imprint in recent years than Fred Hersch. Despite the wide acclaim of albums like Passion Flower, Hersch’s tenure with Nonesuch ended after Songs Without Words; whether the ambitious, arguably ill-timed (market-wise) three-CD set sealed his fate with the label or was his way of making a big exit is anybody’s guess. The real story, however, is Hersch’s hook-up with Palmetto, one of the smartest independent U.S. mainstream labels. Hersch’s first Palmetto was an engaging Village Vanguard trio set with bass player Drew Gress and drummer Nasheet Waits. Last year also saw the release of Songs and Lullabies (Sunnyside), a wonderfully luminous collaboration with vocalist Norma Winstone that would seem hard to equal, let alone top.

Hersch’s latest Palmetto gem is this quintet date, which adds trumpeter Ralph Alessi and tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby to the pianist’s standing trio. Credit goes to Hersch’s matching of materials and musicians, which is almost flawless. The bulk of the program is comprised of Hersch’s originals, which can be put into two general categories: One features well-meshed rhythmic shifts and harmonic contours that have the sureness of a Shorter or a Wheeler composition; the other employs bop’s intrinsic playfulness in a way that can haphazardly prompt comparisons with Monk or even early Ornette. These strands weave through what is a hard-boiled program for one of jazz’s most ardent romantics. The only snag in the proceedings is a swoonful version of the Beatles’ “And I Love Her.” Otherwise, this is a well-paced album that stands up well to repeated listening.

As Live at the Village Vanguard established, Hersch, Gress and Waits have refined the tug and pull that makes for durable jazz piano-trio music. This is not to suggest that Waits-who can instantly summon thunder-rattles Hersch out of his usual thoughtfulness, or that Gress, whose resume increasingly tips toward Downtown, forces Hersch out of the pocket. But they do constantly nudge him and occasionally give him a jolt, to which Hersch responds with incisive phrasing and a crisp attack. Conversely, Hersch opens up a wealth of niches in each piece, which Gress and Waits tastefully fill-or partially fill when appropriate. Adding Alessi and Malaby doesn’t upset the trio’s balance. Malaby’s gruff tenor and Alessi’s bell-like tone blend well in the ensembles, and both horn players have distinctive ways of double-clutching through gears in a solo, and knowing just how long to coast on the curves before reaccelerating. The overall chemistry within Hersch’s quintet is such that if this band can work enough to produce an album annually for the next two or three years, they may well find themselves among the most highly regarded units in the U.S.