Floating, the remarkable new album by the Fred Hersch Trio, brings the pianist back into forbidding territory. After a run of lightning-in-a-bottle live albums, he returned to the studio to document the ongoing evolution of his primary ensemble featuring bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson.
Slated for release by Palmetto on July 8, 2014, the album captures the trio in exceptional form, playing with nonpareil rhythmic resourcefulness, ravishing lyricism, and telepathic interplay.
"My last three albums have been live, and I was a little apprehensive about going in and putting on headphones," Hersch says. "But we played a week at the Vanguard just before recording so we went into the studio and let it fly. The album really captures the trio's energy, and I'm very pleased with the recording quality. You can really hear all the detail in what Eric and John are doing."
The trio's last release, 2012's Fred Hersch Trio - Alive at the Vanguard (Palmetto) was a critically hailed double album that earned the Grand Prix du Disque, France's top jazz award. With five years and numerous national and international tours under their belts, the group has continued to hone its rarified communion, a creative frission evident on Floating. Unfolding with much the same rhapsodic coherence of a trio concert, the new album ranks amongst Hersch's very best work, which is to say that it's one of the era's definitive trio recordings.
While the album focuses on Hersch's original compositions, two American Songbook standards serve as lyrical touchstones. Propelled by McPherson's clattering sticks, the trio opens the session with an intricately patterned sojourn through "You and the Night and the Music" that builds to a two-handed montuno. The trio closes with a sensuous caress of "If Ever I Would Leave You" and a measured but exacting investigation of "Let's Cool One," continuing Hersch's longstanding tradition of closing most performances with a Monk masterpiece.
"I'm always searching for ballads that don't get played often, or tunes that don't get played as ballads," Hersch says. "I think most people know 'If Ever I Would Leave You' from Sonny Rollins' much more uptempo version. We decided to lay down this body of material like we would in performance, a nice tight set."
The zero-gravity feel of the title track flows from an impromptu exploration of a tune built out of gossamer melodic threads, a performance that beautifully illustrates the way the trio can dive into the unknown and let the space between the notes ring eloquently. In a sense the piece is a statement about the trust they've engendered as an ensemble, and the maturity and focus of their concept. Hersch's other originals speak to his abiding ties to family, friends and colleagues, as every piece besides the title track is an emotionally evocative dedication.
The delicately filigreed "West Virginia Rose" is a through composed "song" inspired by Hersch's mother and grandmother (already with words by Hersch's longtime lyricist, vocalist Norma Winstone), a brief beatific reflection that sets up the rolling Crescent City groove of "Home Fries," a piece dedicated to the trio's redoubtable bassist. A weeklong run with luminous bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding and drummer Richie Barshay at the Jazz Standard, Hersch's other home base in New York, inspired "Arcata," an insistently kinetic piece with a buoyantly ascending bass line that evokes Spalding's tireless energy. The impressionistic "Autumn Haze," a tune for the stellar pianist Kevin Hayes, hints at unplumbed depths with its moody feel and mysterious Shorterian harmonies.
"I don't know exactly how many dedications I've done, but it's well over 30 at this point," Hersch says. "As a composer it's a way into something. I'll start to work on a piece and something really reminds me of someone. 'Floating' is the only piece that's not a dedication, and after all the activity and seat-of-the-pants it settles the record down and opens the door to all these worlds inspired by these different people."
The album's sequential and emotional centerpiece is the strikingly constructed "Far Away," a tune Hersch wrote in memory of the rising Israeli pianist Shimrit Shoshan, who's shocking death in 2012 from cardiac arrest at the age of 29 hit far too close to home for the trio. Hébert and McPherson, her husband, played on her impressive 2011 debut album Keep It Movin', and she had taken several lessons from Hersch. Rather than riffing on her love of knotty compositions by Monk and Herbie Nichols, he offers an ethereal benediction.
"The tune sounds fairly simple, but it took a long time to write," Hersch says. "It's an example of the way we improvise, of feeling how the chords move together. It really shows what a great bassist John is, to be able to play changes and feel them in an emotional way without any pulse. I told Eric do whatever you want, this is your piece, and he came up with the percussion and the mallets."
Born in Cincinnati on Oct. 21, 1955, Hersch studied music theory and composition and sang in high school theater productions. It wasn't until he was attending Grinnell College in Iowa that he turned on to jazz when he started listening to John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Miles Davis and Chick Corea. But the jazz bug really bit him when he went home for the holidays and happened into a Cincinnati jazz spot. He ended up dropping out of school and earned his stripes on the bandstand, with veteran musicians serving as his professors. After honing his chops for 18 months he enrolled at New England Conservatory earning a Bachelor of Music degree before moving to New York City in 1977.
Hersch quickly gained recognition as a superlative band-mate, performing and recording with masters such as Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, Billy Harper, Lee Konitz, Art Farmer, Gary Burton, Toots Thielemans, and Jane Ira Bloom. Since releasing his first album under his own name, he's recorded in an array of settings, including a series of captivating solo recitals, duos with vocalists Janis Siegel and Norma Winstone, and ambitious projects like his chamber jazz setting for Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, documented on his 2005 Sunnyside album of the same name.
As an educator, Hersch has shepherded some of the finest young pianists in jazz through his teaching at Rutgers and New England Conservatory, where he is currently on faculty, as well as Juilliard and the New School. A leading force in galvanizing the jazz community in the fights against HIV/AIDS, he produced 1994's Last Night When We Were Young for Classical Action: Performing Arts Against AIDS, an album featuring the likes of Bobby Watson, Phil Woods, George Shearing, Mark Murphy and Gary Burton.
If there's one thread running through Hersch's recording career it's the trio. From his first session with Marc Johnson and Joey Baron, he's pushed at the limits of lyricism and temporal fluidity with similarly searching improvisers. It's telling that his triomates include musicians from jazz's left wing, such as his group with
Michael Formanek and Jeff Hirschfield, and his long-running ensemble with Drew Gress and Tom Rainey. Inspired by disparate trio maestros such as Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson, he's drawn deeply from the music's most refined players while forging his own approach.
"I have great admiration for Tommy Flanagan and Cedar Walton, and the early Ahmad Jamal trio with Crosby and Fournier is the pinnacle of trio playing," Hersch says. "I like looking at the tradition through my own lens. I like writing and discovering interesting things to play. Every record I make I want the next one to be better. I think this one is a step forward for me."
Hersch spent much of the last decade performing with Gress and drummer Nasheet Waits, a prodigious trio that gently transitioned into his current combo. As best friends, Waits started recommending McPherson for gigs he couldn't make, and eventually turned over the drum chair to him. And when Gress's schedule became too thick with other engagements, Hébert was a natural replacement, as he and McPherson had anchored Andrew Hill's last rhythm section.
"It evolved really organically. It wasn't like I fired anybody," Hersch says. "John sort of stepped in, and I've always loved his playing. Like Drew, I was attracted to him by his sound. He's from Baton Rouge, and his playing has a looseness that's great for me. He's also done his homework in the tradition. And Eric is incredible at what we call the transition game, going from brushes to sticks and other implements. He knows the tradition in and out. He came up as a sideman with some great musicians, but he's definitely got some things that are hidden."
Hersch introduced the trio with Hébert and McPherson on the acclaimed 2010 album Whirl (Palmetto), a session that arrived with the freighted back story of his miraculous recovery from a two-month coma so deep that his doctors feared he'd never regain consciousness (he turned the near-death experience into the wildly imaginative jazz/theater production My Coma Dreams, a collaboration with librettist Herschel Garfein). He continues to perform and record with an array of fascinating musicians, like on last year's Free Flying, a breathtaking duo encounter with 25-year-old guitarist Julian Lage recorded live at the Kitano - as well as a duo project with trumpeter Ralph Alessi and a rare "double trio" with French pianist Benoit Delbecq. But he's always drawn back to the precariously high-wire trio.
"When the trio is right it's transcendent, and if anything is off the whole thing crumbles," Hersch says. "There just aren't that many trios among the players my age or younger that have a really distinct sound. John and Eric are both incredibly alert. I don't feel like there's any ego. We're all trying to serve whatever is going on."
June 28-29 - Montreal Int'l Jazz Festival - Upstairs Jazz Bar, Montreal (w/FH Trio)
July 15-20 - Village Vanguard, NYC (w/FH Trio)
Aug 2 - Maverick Concerts, Woodstock, NY (duo w/Julian Lage)
Aug 3-9 - Stanford Jazz Workshop - Performance Sunday, August 3, (w/FH Trio)
Aug 23-28 - Red Sea Jazz Festival, Israel (w/FH Trio)
Aug 30 - Solo Concert: Windham Chamber Music Festival: Windham, NY
Sept 18 - Panel Discussion: Outbeat Jazz Festival (LGBT)
Sept 19 - Outbeat Jazz Festival (LGBT), Philadelphia (w/FH Trio)
Sept 23-28 - The Jazz Standard (w/Esperanza Spalding & Richie Barshay)
Oct 2 - Concert: Grinnell College, Grinnell IA (w/FH Trio)
Oct 4 - Folly Theater, Kansas City, MO (w/FH Trio)
Oct 13 - University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH (w/FH Trio)
Oct 17 - Solo Concert: Arts Garage, Delray Beach, FL
Oct 18 - South Miami Dade Cultural Arts Center, Cutler, FL (w/FH Trio)
Nov 2 - William Paterson University, NJ (w/FH Trio)
Nov 16 - Greenwich Library (w/FH Trio)
Nov 23 - Chester, CT (w/FH Trio)
Nov 29 - McCarter Theater, Princeton, NJ (duo with Julian Lage)
Feb. 20-21 - The Side Door, Old Lyme, CT (w/FH Trio)
Feb 25 - Scullers, Boston, MA (w/FH Trio)
Feb 26 - U Mass Amherst, MA (w/FH Trio)
Feb 27 - Flynn Space, Burlington, VT (w/FH Trio)
Feb 28 - College of St. Rose, Albany, NY (w/FH Trio)
Mar 3 - Private Concert: Richmond, VA (w/FH Trio)
Mar 6 - Flushing Town Hall, NYC (w/FH Trio)
April 2 - Bimhuis, Amsterdam (w/FH Trio)
April 3 or 4 - Rotterdam, Holland (w/FH Trio)
April 5 - Middelburg, Holland (w/FH Trio)
April 11 - Cité de la Musique, Paris (w/FH Trio)
April 14- Solo Concert: Konzerthaus, Vienna
April 22- Solo Concert: Bozar, Brussels
April - Solo Concert: SOKA Performing Arts Center, Alisa Viejo CA