Jewish jazz pianist Fred Hersch will be returning home for two dates at the Blue Wisp: Monday, Sept. 24 and Tuesday, Sept. 25. The concert is a celebration of Hersch’s new double CD, Alive at the Vanguard, with bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson.
Hersch’s trio displays all the rhythmic daring, preternatural interplay, harmonic sophistication and passionate lyricism that makes it one of the era’s definitive ensembles.
“This may be my best trio playing on record, in terms of range, sound, being in the moment, and the way we play together,” says Hersch, 56. “Not that I disown any of my former (groups), but considering where I was three to four years ago, this is very strong, focused playing.”
Much of the trio’s strength comes from Hersch’s side men.
“I’ve always loved John’s playing,” Hersch says of bassist Hébert. “He’s from Baton Rouge, and his playing has a looseness that’s great for me. He’s also done his homework in the tradition. He can really play a ballad and he knows where the substitute chords are.”
The group’s revelation may be its drummer, McPherson, though he’s hardly a new face on the scene. A standout since he joined Jackie McLean’s band as a teenager in the early 1990s, he spent 15 years with the alto legend. That, along with his work accompanying heavyweights like Hill, Pharaoh Sanders and Greg Osby, established McPherson as a forceful and resourceful post-bop player versed in the polyrhythmic vocabularies of Elvin Jones and Jack DeJohnette. But in Hersch’s trio he comfortably embraces a less-is-more trap set aesthetic, with masterly dynamic control, quiet intensity and consistently thoughtful textural shadings. When it’s time to flex his muscles, like the rollicking Charlie Parker blues “Segment” or his cascading solo on “Opener,” which Hersch composed as a feature for McPherson, he plays with the requisite punch.
“Eric is incredible at what we call the transition game, going from brushes to sticks and other implements,” Hersch says. “I’m not sure how many people realize that. He’s kind of a sleeper. He knows the tradition in and out. He came up as a sideman with some great musicians and he is quite a magician himself.”
In many ways Hersch’s ascendance to jazz’s top ranks is a wonder, given his relatively late discovery of the music. Born and raised in Cincinnati, he studied music theory and composition while growing up and sang in high school theater productions. It wasn’t until he was attending Grinnell College in Iowa that he turned on to jazz when he started listening to John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Miles Davis and Chick Corea. But the jazz bug really bit him when he went home for the holidays and happened into a Cincinnati jazz spot. He ended up dropping out of school and earned his stripes on the bandstand, with veteran musicians serving as his professors. After honing his chops for 18 months, he enrolled at New England Conservatory, earned an undergraduate degree and made the move to New York City in 1977.
Hersch quickly gained recognition as a superlative accompanist, performing and recording with masters such as Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, Billy Harper, Lee Konitz, and Art Farmer. Since releasing his first album under his own name, he’s recorded in an array of settings, including a series of captivating solo recitals, duos with vocalists Janis Siegel and Norma Winstone, and ambitious recent projects, like his chamber jazz setting for Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” As an educator, Hersch has shepherded some of the finest young pianists in jazz through his teaching at NEC and the New School.
If there’s one thread running through Hersch’s career it’s the trio. From his first session with Marc Johnson and Joey Baron, he’s pushed at the limits of lyricism and temporal fluidity with similarly searching improvisers. It’s telling that his trio-mates have included versatile musicians such as Michael Formanek and Tom Rainey.
“When trio is right it’s very strong, but also very fragile,” Hersch says. “If it’s right it’s transcendent, and if anything is off, the whole thing crumbles. John and Eric are both incredibly alert. I don’t feel like there’s any ego. We’re all trying to serve the music as it unfolds.”