Fred Hersch and Julian Lage – Free Flying (2013)

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Fred Hersch has done plenty of duet albums and plenty of live albums, so perhaps it’s inevitable that the brilliant, reflective pianist would make a live, duet album with a guitarist. After all, he paired with a plectrist for a full album only once, and that was fifteen years ago, in a studio, playing sturdy old standards (Songs We Know, with Bill Frisell). But recently, Hersch struck up a musical pairing with a guitarist of a newer generation, Julian Lage, and one of their club sets from earlier this year was documented for a record.

Free Flying, taped at the Kitano in New York, is a mostly relaxed encounter like that Frisell meeting, but only two covers (Sam Rivers’ “Beatrice” and Monk’s “Blue Monk”). The remaining numbers are all Hersch’s, with only his Jim Hall dedication “Stealthiness” being introduced here. Both decisions — to play mostly his own songs, and to make a record with Lage — are good calls.

Take, for instance, the initial song, “Song Without Words #4: Duet.” Hersch initially takes the lead in a melodic progression that frolics. Lage patiently picks his spot to contribute and when Hersch backs away, Lage exploits his opportunity. Going one-on-one with Hersch puts in sharp relief how mature a guitar player Lage really is. His choice of notes that all serve to illuminate the melody and his naturally flowing articulation are extensions of Hersch’s own experienced approach. In fact, Hersch himself has remarked, “he’s got a special sound that’s both solid and transparent, and our sounds are very compatible.”

“Down Home,” incidentally dedicated to Frisell, appears for at least the 3rd time on a Hersch record, obviously a favorite of Hersch’s and it’s apparent why: it’s a very memorable, timeless harmony and he thrives on it. Lage cuts loose some knotty but stubbornly swinging lines and instantly adjusts to Hersch’s subtle modulations. The Jim Hall tribute is another high mark; the two are creatively playing in between the beats on this blues based tune. Lage tactfully reaches for a dramatic peak, then softly descends again. “Gravity’s Pull (for Mary Jo Salter)” is another great melody and the unison between the two brings it out vividly. Hersch comps very supportively behind Lund and when it’s his turn to improvise his signature radiant arpeggios makes a seamless transition over from the comping.

And those covers? On “Beatrice” each take turns expounding on Sam Rivers’ classic melody and then in a moment of sublime telepathy, they do that together. “Monk’s Dream” has such a familiar strain that everyone’s heard, so Lage at around the 3:45 mark creatively deconstructs, diffuses and contorts it.

With performers on the level of both Fred Hersch and Julian Lage, their mastery of harmony and rhythm is a given and this record has no new revelations in that regard. The discovery aspect from Free Flying comes from an uncommon, cross-generational chemistry while exploring mostly Hersch’s own chestnuts.

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Free Flying will go on sale September 3 by Palmetto Records.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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