Embracing the Piano and the Material

Fred Hersch
Fred Hersch Trio, Live and Recorded, at the Village Vanguard

In the quest to describe the music of Fred Hersch in a word—a preposterous task, but not a pointless one—you could do a lot worse than “refinement." Mr. Hersch, 56, is a pianist of cultivated taste and erudition; he's also the sort of jazz musician who brings a lissome elegance to his playing, disinclined to accentuate the effort behind it all. But there's another definition of refinement that has to do with painstaking progress, the incremental stretch toward an elusive ideal. That's the connotation he called to mind during his opening set at the Village Vanguard on Tuesday night.

Like most jazz pianists near his stature Mr. Hersch has history with the club, some of it preserved for posterity. “Alone at the Vanguard," his most recent album on Palmetto, is up for two awards at the Grammys on Sunday. “Live at the Village Vanguard," his 2003 Palmetto debut, captured the earthy finesse of what was then a new trio. This week's run is also being recorded for release, which means Mr. Hersch will have a similar document of his current trio, with John Hébert on bass and Eric McPherson on drums.

That's great news, given how much the trio has flourished since the release of its 2010 studio album, “Whirl," which furnished a single tune in Tuesday's set. The tune was “Sad Poet," for Antonio Carlos Jobim, and its performance confirmed the group's stronger sense of itself.

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