In the right hands and at the right place, the instrumental jazz ballad can seethe with a power belied by its surface calm. The concentrated force served up by a musician requires a single-minded focus and unmediated access to a panoply of emotions that can be as stamina-sapping as a full-fledged up-tempo improvisation. Miles Davis used to complain about how he would have to rebuff women who came on to him offstage after he had completed one of his characteristic heartbreakers of a ballad: Didn't they realize, he wondered, how much hard work it all was?
On Fred Hersch's new "Live at the Village Vanguard," the pianist sounds as if he were similarly spent following his own immensely affecting ballad performances. Not that he's some kind of one-trick pony. In fact, the 47-year-old Hersch may be the most complete pianist of his generation, even as he looms over the majority of the prodigiously talented crop of younger pianists dotting the jazz landscape. Early stints with such stalwarts of swing as Art Farmer, Stan Getz and Joe Henderson have lent his playing a bracing immediacy that places a premium on plain-spoken communication, while his current work with modernists like Jane Ira Bloom and the Dutch-based Michael Moore has fostered an ethic of inventiveness that precludes rote music-making.
On this career-defining recording, Hersch remains just as comfortable, convincing and skillful maneuvering through the contours of diverse tempos and song forms as he is slicing deep into the core of a ballad. Hersch has a ball with Thelonious Monk's lurching "Bemsha Swing"; the charging rides of Wayne Shorter's "Black Nile"; his own "Phantom of the Bopera"; and the easy sway of the attractive originals "Endless Stars," the skip-stepping "Stuttering," the lovely jazz waltz "Days Gone By" and the deliciously menacing groove of "Swamp Thang."
Still, it's the ballads that kill. Hersch's "At the Close of the Day" and "Miyako," another Shorter gem, are the briskest of the slower numbers, both floating on the shimmering support of bassist Drew Gress and drummer Nasheet Waits, the newest member of Hersch's trio. (Gress's judiciously assured solos on both performances share Hersch's lyrical largess.) "Some Other Time" -- not the Leonard Bernstein composition that Bill Evans put his indelible mark on but a Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne tune -- and the just-right closer "I'll Be Seeing You" receive beautifully considered, unsentimental readings that pinpoint the emotional centers of the songs.
Evans will always play a huge part in Hersch's music making. The near-naked immediacy of Evans's balladry and his acute harmonic sense obviously inform much of Hersch's playing, no matter how artfully he's found a way of personalizing these influences. The fact that Hersch recorded his most balanced and rewarding album at the same club where Evans cut his groundbreaking albums with Scott La Faro and Paul Motian probably has nothing to do with coincidence and everything to do with the mysterious power of lingering inspiration.
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