Jazz Review: Fred Hersch Trio - Alive at the Vanguard

"If it's right, it's transcendent."
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fred hersch trioFive-time Grammy nominee Fred Hersch takes to Alive at the Vanguard with an exciting trio that rounds out with bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson. The pianist’s group has drawn enough water from the well for a double album.

Hersch brought the trio to the attention of many with Whirl, his 2010 Palmetto debut. But here with Alive, the group takes to the legendary New York City club for a series that runs with gusto and professionalism.

The program includes seven Hersch originals, seven classic jazz numbers and four pieces from the American Songbook. The trio plays the songs with a decidedly modern air, committing them to the acoustics of the Vanguard while maintaining their place in history.

“This may be my best trio playing on record, in terms of range, sound and being in the moment – and the way we play together,” Hersch says. “Not that I disown any of my former albums, but consider where I was three to four years ago, this is very strong, focused playing. And sonically, I think it really captures the Vanguard.”

It’s hard to argue with Hersch’s comments, as the trio really does pull through some amazing stuff. The appreciative crowd laps it up, too, and helps give Alive that “being there” vibe.

The first disc commences with “Havana,” a Hersch original that leads with beautifully cryptic piano and McPherson’s light-as-a-feather drumming. He adds just enough accents to propel things forward, but he’s never dominant or loud.

“Segment” is a lively piece that draws McPherson to the fore in a bolder way. His fills are electric and his rhythmic walking with Hébert builds the foundation for Hersch’s playful ivory-tickling. The Charlie Parker blues number has plenty of opportunities for showing off, but the band comes to play as a unit.

The first disc closes with “Doxy,” a slowed-down Sonny Rollins number. Hersch’s playing guides the trio into a stroll, settling into a head-nodding groove accented by Hébert’s refined touches and McPherson’s brushes.

The second disc states its intent with Hersch’s “Opener.” The tempo is hard to pick out, but the trio likes it that way and moves through the challenge with poise. McPherson’s solo just after four minutes in builds organically, nestled right in the spot Hersch set up. For all the flavour of the solo, it’s how the drummer forms it on existing rhythms that makes it a highlight.

Hersch’s inventive spirit slides through the playful “Jackalope,” a piece that blends Hébert and the pianist well.

There are several highlights to be found on Alive at the Vanguard, of course, and the organization cooks through all of them with the presence of a well-oiled machine. The trio in general may be fragile, as Hersch would have it, but “if it’s right, it’s transcendent.” Chalk this one up for the good guys.