Fred Hersch Trio – Alive at the Vanguard (2012)

Photograph by Jimmy Katz

The title is so very appropriate, and not just because this set was recorded during a week-long stint at the Village Vanguard. Fred Hersch, after a near death experience in 2008, has never sounded more present — more, in short, alive.

One of the few modern-day pianists to embody Bill Evans’ delicacy even while advancing it with his own impish personality, Hersch has been on a creative tear since falling into a months-long coma four years ago. As reliably great as his terrific studio trio recording Whirl in 2009 was, and as deeply moving as last year’s Grammy-nominated solo effort Alone at the Vanguard was as well, this may just be the pianist’s best effort yet — so completely does it underscore Hersch’s command of his instrument, the trio format and (no small thing) the legacy.

Playing alongside bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson, the two-disc Alive set — due September 11, 2012 via Palmetto — finds Hersch directly referencing that earlier health scare with the intricate and delightful “Dream of Monk.” The track was based on one of the dreams the pianist remembers from his time in a coma, and was originally part of a larger project called My Coma Dreams.

Hersch isn’t looking to simply retrace his own steps here, though. That would be far too limiting for an artist of his range and skill. Instead, Alive seeks to integrate Hersch’s cadances into the very language of jazz — to engage the canon, both through interpretation and reflection.

So, you’ll find him paying tribute to the late Paul Motian on “Tristesse,” tipping his hat to Wayne Shorter on the lyrically inviting ballad “Rising, Falling,” and fondly recalling the impeccable hipness of Ornette Coleman on “Sartorial.” Later, Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” is brilliantly combined with Miles Davis’ “Nardis” — just as it originally was on Hersch’s Evanessence, a 1998 tribute to Bill Evans. Later, Hersch once again melds Russ Freeman’s “The Wind” and Alec Wilder’s “Moon and Sand,” a pairing first investigated during the pianist’s 1984 debut for Concord, Horizons.

Other standout cover treatments include their sizzling, blues-soaked take on “Doxy” from Sonny Rollins, and a fleet dash through Charlie Parker’s minor-key “Segment.” Monk eventually returns in more than just spirit when Hersch references he eccentric late bopper’s little-known “Played Twice” during an extended exploration through “The Song Is You.”

While this is certainly a piano-led amalgam, Hersch is as unfailingly sympathetic, as open to new group ideas as he is persistently engaging in his own right: McPherson, for instance, is given the spotlight for a drum feature called “Opening,” while the tender but never precious update of Jules Styne’s “I Fall in Love Too Easily” works as a showcase for Hebert. Both are veterans of pianist Andrew Hill’s groups, and it serves them well when the always frisky Hersch swerves away into more turbulent waters.

By the time these 15 tracks conclude, Hersch and Co. have zipped through every possible permutation — inside and out, blues and showtunes, originals and covers, ballads and bop. Along the way, they not only hold their own, they’ve provided stirring new insights at each stop.

Brimming with enthusiasm, so very glad to be Alive, Hersch isn’t just trying to keep up, isn’t just running through the changes. He’s interpolated the standards, absorbed the lessons and ideas of the greats, made them his own — and moves now at his own brilliant pace. Long may he run.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.

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