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Fred Hersch & WDR Big Band: Begin Again (Palmetto)

A review of the pianist's album with the German ensemble and conductor Vince Mendoza

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Fred Hersch & the WDR Big Band, Begin Again
The cover of Begin Again by Fred Hersch and the WDR Big Band

It’s tempting to assume that the subtlety and nuance of pianist Fred Hersch’s Begin Again stem from the arrangements by Vince Mendoza and performances by German accompanists the WDR Big Band. Both are, after all, Grammy winners. But while the orchestrations and conducting of Mendoza and playing by the ensemble are vital, it’s Hersch’s unique use of space, and pace, that most fuel the disc.

If you were to listen without knowing about it beforehand, you’d probably never guess which musician was the bandleader. Such is Hersch’s unique captaincy amid a sea of jazz pianists since starting his solo recording career more than 35 years ago (making the fact that he’s been nominated for 14 Grammys, but never won, more of a curiosity). Begin Again mostly features reworkings from Hersch’s existing catalog, but the opening title track is the fresh exception. The pianist doesn’t solo until after alto saxophonist Johan Horlen, instead punctuating the lush harmonies of the 13 horn players and accenting the shifting meters of bassist John Goldsby and drummer Hans Dekker.

“Havana,” from Hersch’s 2012 trio release Alive at the Vanguard, features a jubilant reworking by Mendoza that includes a rousing solo by tenor saxophonist Paul Heller. Other highlights include the eerie-yet-beautiful “Out Someplace (Blues for Matthew Shepard),” which instrumentally imagines the final hours of the man whose 1998 murder in Wyoming helped lead to groundbreaking hate-crime legislation, and the percolating “Forward Motion,” which spotlights trumpeter Ruud Breuls and trombonist Andy Hunter. The album’s closer, “The Orb”—from Hersch’s otherworldly 2011 DVD My Coma Dreams—offers a slice of the pianist’s recollections from a two-month-long coma caused by pneumonia, and recovery with the help of his tireless domestic partner Scott Morgan, at the point where Hersch’s life truly did begin again.

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