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Concert Review: Fred Hersch and Julian Lage in Boston, 11-21-13

Keyboardist and guitarist are a well-matched pair

Julian Lage at Winter Jazz Fest 2012
Fred Hersch and Julian Lage

Fred Hersch and Julian Lage kicked off a short run of promoting their splendid live duo album, Free Flying, at the Boston club Scullers Nov. 21, with stops to follow in Washington, D.C. (Blues Alley) and New York (the Blue Note) over the next several days and two more next month in Chicago (the Jazz Showcase). The album was recorded this past February, after a chance meeting in a Boston coffee shop a couple of years earlier. And the Boston performance, like the album, demonstrated how ideally matched they are as a duo.

The Scullers set opened with the Sam Rivers classic “Beatrice,” from his legendary album Fuchsia Swing Song. Hersch’s piano kicked off the duo version, with Lage’s guitar quickly locking in for a workout that included lots of eye contact, a deft solo from Hersch and Lage generally carrying the melody with Hersch’s comping. “Jams can be fun,” declared Hersch as it ended, and he would go on to announce the tunes, most of which he had written, throughout the evening.

“Song Without Words #4: Duet” was up next, and with Lage on hand it actually was a duet, unlike the solo piano version Hersch recorded for a 2001 album. Hersch started out carrying the piece at Scullers, with Lage seeming to look for a way to join in. When he did so, the swift and intricate melody kept the young virtuoso more challenged than usual, though he proved more than up to the task, handling the lead ably when it came his turn and echoing Hersch when it returned to the piano.

Next came a brand-new composition, with the working title “12-Minute Waltz,” the result of Hersch sitting down with a kitchen timer and giving himself 45 minutes (“the customary time for a therapy session,” he wryly noted) to write a new tune. Lage was featured early into it, and its newness had him eyeing the sheet music and stealing glances at Hersch. The pianist took over the lead at one point, with Lage offering understated comping, and as the piece progressed it became freer and more abstract while retaining its chamber-jazz feel. “Gravity’s Pull,” the Hersch original that followed it, was even more classical-sounding, with the two men’s improvisations eventually giving way to the piece’s lovely melody.

It’s that classical slant that makes this duo so well-matched. Hersch swings when he wants to, is a brilliant improviser and loves his Monk, but his playing has a lightness to it that sets it apart from the hard bop mainstream. Lage dabbles in bluegrass (with Chris Eldridge) and other styles of jazz (with the New Gary Burton Quartet and Eric Harland, among others), but one of his own group’s inspirational touchstones is the chamber-jazz pioneer Jimmy Giuffre, whose earliest and best-known trios featured Jim Hall on guitar. Lage has been fortunate enough to share a stage with Hall, Hersch mentioned in announcing the next tune, dedicated to “Jim Hall, the source for modern jazz guitar. … Given his rather understated way of playing, I called it ‘Stealthiness.'”

Lage began the piece solo, playing with a bluesy, walking feel, and at one point cried out “Aah!” at a particularly clever bit of comping from Hersch. The tune was one of the set’s jazziest, and a highlight, but everything that followed it kept up the exquisite interplay. Lage proved himself adept on “Songs Without Words #3: Tango” (he ought to be, given Burton’s penchant for tangos). The Dietz and Schwartz standard “You and the Night and the Music” opened with an abstract intro from Hersch, and Lage let rip with a fine solo when his turn came. “West Virginia Rose,” written for Hersch’s mother (who is from the state), was slow, pretty, balladic and Hersch promised it would “go into something else.” That turned out to be “Down Home,” dedicated to another great guitarist, Bill Frisell, with whom Hersch has also recorded a duo album. Lage was at his strongest here, and concluded the piece with a countryish flair.

Piano and guitar, Hersch observed afterward, can be “a very tricky thing.” But with Lage, “it just seems to work.” In fact, Lage may be an even better match for Hersch than Frisell had been: Frisell’s playing leans more slow and pensive; Lage’s playing shares Hersch’s sprightliness. That seemed particularly evident “Free Flying,” the album’s title track, dedicated to the Brazilian composer, guitarist and pianist Egberto Gismonti, which wrapped up the scheduled set with its tricky unison passages and counterpoint. The audience demanded an encore, and Hersch responded by asking, “Can we take you to the next gig?” The duo then obliged them with an interpretation of Duke Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” that was easily recognizable but nonetheless the duo’s own.

Originally Published