Jazz is too often portrayed as an art form defined by blazing young artists. It's true that many jazz masters reach a mid-career plateau marked by small variations on a mature style. But there's also a vanguard of players and composers who continue to refine and expand the art form in middle age and beyond, like Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Henry Threadgill, and piano maestro Fred Hersch, who is marking his 60th year with an astonishing creative surge. Slated for release by his longtime label Palmetto on August 12, 2016, Hersch's new recording Sunday Night at the Vanguard stands as the most profound and enthralling trio statement yet by an improviser whose bands have embodied the enduring relevance of the piano-bass-and-drums format for three decades.
With Sunday, Hersch's trio gracefully leapfrogs past its already daunting accomplishments. Featuring the exquisitely interactive bassist John Hébert and extraordinarily sensitive drummer Eric McPherson, the ensemble has recorded a series of critically hailed albums over the past seven years, including 2012's Fred Hersch Trio - Alive at the Vanguard, a double album that earned France's top jazz award, the Grand Prix du Disque, and 2014's lavishly praised Floating, a double Grammy®-nominee (both on Palmetto).
Recorded at the storied venue that's become Hersch's second home, Sunday Night at the Vanguard unfolds with all the dramatic intensity and narrative drive that make his performances a revelatory experience. Ebulliently playful and ravishingly lyrical, rhythmically elastic and harmonically exploratory, the trio plays with an extraordinary level of trust, assurance, high-wire poise and musicality throughout the set. "The thing that's beautiful about Eric is his touch," Hersch says. "He's the straight man and John is the loose guy, though sometimes they reverse it."
Hersch had only played "A Cockeyed Optimist" with the trio a few times when he called the rarely heard Rodgers and Hammerstein gem as the evening's opening tune. From the first notes of the gentle intro he sensed the group was in a special zone, and aside from two pieces drawn from the night's second set the album unfolds exactly as the trio delivered it. "I'm always looking for tunes on the obscure side," Hersch says. "The trio had played it a couple of times, but never to open a set, and as soon as we started I knew it was going to be a good night. This is by far my best trio album and it represents about as well as we can play."
There are familiar Hersch touchstones along the way, with several memorable new pieces. The latest in his long line of character studies, "Serpentine" was inspired by a close associate of Ornette Coleman's, and the tune captures her mysterious and alluring air. "The Optimum Thing" is his clever contrafact based on the chord changes to Irving Berlin's "The Best Thing for You," and it exemplifies the trio's elastic sense of time, as the song opens at a brisk, tumbling tempo and accelerates into a sweat-inducing gallop (other nights it's a study in deceleration).
Of the album's numerous startlingly beautiful passages, the trio's aching rendition of Lennon and McCartney "For No One," stands out. He recorded the song with Janis Siegel on the 1994 duo project Slow Hot Wind and uses essentially the same arrangement here. But now it's Hersch's piano delivering the melody at a dolorous tempo, drawing out the tune's quiet desperation. While the Beatles recording is more snappy than despondent, "it's really a song about a break up, and maybe the saddest lyric they ever wrote," Hersch says. "I slowed it down with Janis and added some beats on 'linger on.' When we play it people really react to it."
Hersch recorded Kenny Wheeler's jubilant "Everybody's Song But My Own" as the title track of a 2013 Japanese trio album focused on standards. He played the terpsichorean tune with Wheeler many times, and now it serves as a gripping tribute to the brilliant trumpeter/composer, who died last year. He follows with a recent original, "Blackwing Palomino," which not coincidentally is the name of the storied writing implement with which Hersch notated the bluesy piece. A self-confessed pencil geek, he notes that the brand "was the favorite of Tennessee Williams. The company just started making them again, and I buy them by the dozens. I was rehearsing with Ravi Coltrane recently and we started talking pencils and he said I should write a tune with Blackwing in the title. The slogan on the pencil is 'Half the pressure. Twice the result.'"
Cryptic, open-hearted and filigreed, Hersch's "Calligram (for Benoit Delbecq)" is dedicated to the brilliant French pianist who often renders compositions with graphic scores that he calls calligrams. They did a double-trio project with electronics several years ago ("I think he's a genius," Hersch says), and he wrote this pleasingly unresolved tune with Delbecq in mind. If "Calligram" evokes a Rube Goldberg playground, Jimmy Rowles' sylvan ballad "The Peacocks," is a shimmering pastel landscape. Recorded several times previously by Hersch (who got the original sheet music from Rowles himself), this extended version is transcendent.
He closes the set with a rollicking rendition of "We See," a Monk tune he's never recorded before. And then returns for a solo encore, "Valentine," a tune that earned a Grammy nomination for best instrumental composition when it was released on 2002's Live at Bimhaus. "I always end with Monk," Hersch says, "and always play 'Valentine' as an encore, which leaves the audience feeling groovy and happy."
No artist in the past three decades has used the Vanguard more effectively than Hersch. He made his debut at the jazz Mecca in the late 1970s with a 12-piece band co-led by bass legend Sam Jones and rising trumpeter Tom Harrell, the first of dozens of sideman stints at the club. He performed there regularly with Joe Henderson throughout the 1980s, often with Ron Carter and Al Foster ("That was graduate school," Hersch says). He made his Vanguard debut as a leader in 1996 with his celebrated trio featuring Drew Gress and Tom Rainey. "I think I could have played there before 1996 had I been willing to hire an all-star rhythm section, but I wanted to wait until I could do it on my own terms," Hersch says. "Now they say do what you want to do, and it doesn't have to be a concept or tribute. I'm so honored and humbled that my photo is on the wall, next to Coltrane, Bill Evans, and Mingus."
And the Vanguard is hardly Hersch's only showcase. He returns to the Jazz Standard in May for his 10th annual Duo Invitation Series with trumpeter Avishai Cohen, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Julian Lage, Kate McGarry, Yosvany Terry, and Anat Cohen (with whom he's touring the West Coast in June).
Born and raised in Cincinnati, Hersch studied music theory and composition in elementary school and sang in high school theater productions. It wasn't until he started attending Iowa's Grinnell College that he turned on to jazz. (Grinnell is awarding him an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters this year). But the bug really bit him when he went home for the holidays and happened into a Cincinnati jazz club. He ended up dropping out of school and earned his stripes with veteran musicians on local bandstands. After honing his chops for 18 months he enrolled at New England Conservatory to work with jazz piano legend Jaki Byard, and made the move to New York City in 1977 after earning a BM with Honors (he started teaching at NEC in 1980 and retired last year after 35 years on faculty).
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 many others. 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 extended compositional projects including a widely-praised setting of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." As an educator, he has shepherded some of the finest young pianists in jazz through his teaching at NEC, Juilliard, Rutgers and the New School. A leading force in galvanizing the jazz community in the fights against HIV/AIDS, he produced 1994's all-star benefit project Last Night When We Were Young: The Ballad Album.
He's gained the most widespread visibility as the leader of a series of remarkable trios. 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. He has consistently drawn deeply from the music's most refined players while forging his own approach. He considers his current trio, with John Hébert and Eric McPherson, as his best to date. "I always say that as a player there are three main threads that come to prominence at different times," Hersch says. "There's the trio, which is a constant. I've been doing duo encounters steadily going way back to Jane Ira Bloom in the early 1980s. But I think solo feels equal to the trio in terms of being the hub of my musical wheel. My solo playing feeds my trio and vice versa."
A feature length film, The Ballad of Fred Hersch, recently premiered to rapturous reviews at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, and Hersch is busy at work on a memoir (working title: Good Things Happen Slowly) for Crown/Random House due in stores Spring 2017.