Fred Hersch – Sarabande (1987, 2016 reissue)

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A lot of appreciation has been shown to the eminent pianist Fred Hersch in recent years, but his brilliance had been apparent for much longer. Sunnyside Records‘ remastered issue of an early Hersch record provides the perfect pretext for re-examining Hersch’s career when it was just getting going.

Sarabande, recorded at the end of 1986 and originally released the following year, when a young Hersch was already finding his voice, and doing so while leading a high powered rhythm section in whose company he clearly belonged: drummer Joey Baron, who was rapidly becoming a favorite of avant king John Zorn and the masterful bassist Charlie Haden. On January 22, 2016, these recordings are reissued and Hersch’s second album comes back into focus some twenty-nine years later.

A lot of piano trio records, even from some by the greats, suffer from a sameness from being locked into a restrictive form. Not so with Hersch, he generated a different character for nearly every song on Sarabande, and puts his own mark on this fare of mostly standards.

“I Have A Dream” and “Blue and Green” find kinship with Bill Evans’ final period, not just in how richly melodic Hersch is, but how he almost imperceptivity stretches further out without leaving the thematic underpinnings, and the rhythm section stays very well attuned to this evolving mood. The inner passion from Hersch, though, is all his own.

Hersch maneuvers through “The Peacocks” with little overt awareness of how other pianists might approach it; his own is much more concerned on wringing the most juice from its lovely melody. Haden’s solo, naturally, does the same. “Child’s Song” is a folk tune dedicated ahead of time to Haden, as is the reissued version of this album post mortem, and fittingly, he gets an extended spotlight to demonstrate his woody, earthbound articulation.

Hersch isn’t widely considered to be an avant-gardist, but he’s been known to take excursions to the outside, even this early on. “Enfant” is a composition taken Ornette Coleman’s classic Atlantic period but originally recorded shortly after Haden had left the band. Hersch plays piano lines circuitous as Coleman was on his sax, and Haden and Baron keeps things loosely tethered, encouraging Hersch to frolic in freedom. As Hersch backs away, Haden leaves behind a stellar solo that makes you miss this true original. The trio goes even further into freedom for “Cadences” but sort of in a tongue-in-cheek way: after a theatrical declarative intro statement, some nervous energy is summoned by Baron and Haden and Hersch reappears to take whatever melody there is to places his whimsy places it before a return to the theme that is intentionally in opposition to the barely hinged middle.

Hersch, Haden and Baron tackle hot bop as well as the modern pieces, such as “What Is This Thing Called Love?’, whereby Hersch undertakes an aggressive approach to a strain often rendered as a ballad and is bopping like a champ; Baron is combustible as the performance hits its top gear.

Hersch’s original title hymn “Sarabande” is perhaps the highest point of the album. Based on the gradual movement of Bach keyboard suites and rooted in Renaissance dance rhythms, Hersch applies an elegant jazz filter and the harmonic progression is really sublime.

If Fred Hersch has attained legendary status, then the legend began nearly thirty years ago. Sarabande makes that clear, and the new, remastered edition makes it even more so.

Feature photo: John Abbott

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,, 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 [email protected] .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron
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