Fred Hersch - Alone at the Vanguard (2011)


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By S. Victor Aaron

When reviewing Vijay Iyer's sublime piano-only disc Solo last year, I tossed out my personal maxim that “when a great, small combo jazz pianist makes a solo record, it usually doesn't signal that pianist's arrival, it means he's solidifying his legacy." Well, Alone at the Vanguard is Fred Hersch's fourth solo piano release and for someone who has steadily built up his reputation for more than a quarter century, Hersch's legacy has long been established; he's now down to achieving a lofty Hall of Fame status. As one of the top two or three jazz pianists in NYC these days, eternal fame seems well within reach.

Alone At The Vanguard reminds us of why Hersch was the first solo pianist to earn a weeklong engagement at the famed Village Vanguard club: he plays with cerebral emotion, like as if there was never a doubt that the two qualities could co-exist without a single residue of paradox. Hersch is in the midst of a remarkable comeback from AIDS-induced dementia and eight months in a coma that threatened to not only rob his of his gifts as a musician but take his very life. Hersch's triumphant return, already documented in the trio disc Whirl (2010), is further delineated for Vanguard. Originally intending to pick out the best individual songs from a six night engagement in early December of last year, Hersch was pleased enough with the final night to use the entire performance from that evening and make it the record.

And oh, what a night. A mixture of four Hersch originals, another original by someone else and four standards. This includes five compositions he has never recorded previously. Hersch plays with the intense focus of Bill Evans and the tastefulness of John Hicks or Tommy Flanagan, yet Hersch somehow remains himself through it all, and just like the genius of Jarrett, he does it without having to step outside the artificial boundaries of these tunes. That means the delights of Hersch's method comes through the small, graceful gestures he makes all throughout this performance.

He perfectly phrases the vocal parts from leathery standards like “In The Wee Small Hours Of the Morning" and “Memories Of You" like a seasoned torch singer would, and does so effortlessly with the tinkling of his right hand. On the former, he also exhibits such flawless modulation, taking the song on a mostly low-key ride that swells to a climax close to the five and a half minute mark. Most importantly, he does it in a heartfelt but not overly dramatic fashion. His expressions on the ivories is a reflection of real human emotions and personality.

Three of Hersch's originals are dedicated to other musicians, and showcase his abilities to build memorable melodies that only need a lone piano to feel fully formed and memorable. The best of these is perhaps the first one, “Down Home," which is dedicated to Bill Frisell. It might be a chord or two shy of being a gospel tune, and it fluidly moves through a couple of over styles while maintaining a firm hand over the melody. “Pastorale," dedicated to the 19th century German composer Robert Schumann, more of a classical piece than a jazz one, but an engaging one all the same. It must be hard to convey a samba without percussion, but Hersch manages to get the Brazilian rhythms across on a festive rendition of Jacob de Bandolim's “Doce De Coco." “Lee's Dream" (dedicated to Lee Konitz) demonstrates his ability to invent imaginative left-handed counteracting harmonics to what his right hand is doing. He does that again on the Thelonious Monk tune “Work," which he deconstructs and rebuilds, only to tear it down and put it back together again.

Having stared down death, Hersch shows no battle scars during his exemplary performance at the fabled jazz venue. Instead, with only a piano in front of him, he gave a summation of his vast talent and career that, if anything, was bolstered by that bump on the road. Alone At The Vanguard was released March 1 through Palmetto Records.

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