Sunday Night at the Vanguard is pianist Fred Hersch’s second live recording at the Greenwich Village club with his current trio featuring bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson. It’s an ideal venue for this band, as their empathetic interplay makes them natural heirs to the Evans/LaFaro/Motian unit that revolutionized the jazz-piano trio on the Village Vanguard stage.
Sunday Night’s 10 tracks split evenly between Hersch originals and interpretations of classics. On Richard Rodgers’ “A Cockeyed Optimist,” Hersch pirouettes from plinking, toy-piano openness to cascading runs. Thanks to McPherson’s effortlessly shifting tempo control, Kenny Wheeler’s “Everybody’s Song But My Own” is busy but never frenetic, and Jimmy Rowles’ “The Peacocks” finds Hersch distilling the composition’s enigmatic air with bracing purity. The pianist’s rhythm endlessly evolves throughout Thelonious Monk’s off-kilter “We See,” whereas on the Beatles’ “For No One” the musicians put themselves fully in service of one of Paul McCartney’s most heartrending melodies.
Hersch’s compositions are sharp-edged, ever-active. “Blackwing Palomino” ambles along Hébert’s supple lines, with Hersch evoking a bluesy tone. The solo piano piece “Valentine,” a standard Hersch encore, glistens with the plainspoken clarity of a lullaby. Hébert walks the listener into “Calligram (For Benoit Delbecq),” a mosaic of pointillistic, smartly structured Hersch fragments. “The Optimum Thing” finds the pianist tripping his way through unresolved phrases, Hébert and McPherson keeping the tune upright before ushering Hersch into a deftly executed high-speed finale.
“Serpentine” presents this trio at its most symbiotic. Gonglike cymbal crashes from McPherson give way to Hersch’s moody, crystalline splinters; Hébert’s solo alternately makes an ally of space and twangs forth with dense, string-snapping force. It’s a piece that could easily degenerate into mere noise, and its impact is a testament to the communication Hersch and his bandmates have achieved.