Friday, January 22, 2010

Fred Hersch/Drew Gress/Paul Motian at the Village Vanguard - 1-15-09 Early Set

Having just included both Fred Hersch and Paul Motian in my list of the best live music I saw in 2009, I was surprised to see that they were going to be playing together and curious about how these two very different musicians were going to hook up (bassist Drew Gress has played and recorded extensively with Hersch). One nice thing about Hersch's practice of introducing each tune to the audience is that it makes it possible for someone like me, who's not the best at identifying tunes, to write a more detailed review. I may have the setlist slightly out of order, but I think it's complete.

I Wish I Knew - a not terribly common Harry Warren standard (for what it's worth, the 312th most popular standard, according to, taken uptempo. At first, this tune gave me some trepidation about the set to come, as Motian seemed to be overpowering Hersch a bit, threatening to drown him out. As the dynamics evened out part way through, this turned out to be a good showcase for Hersch's extremely fluid improvisations at fast tempos, as well as a kind of warmup piece for the trio. To my ears, a lot of top-shelf pianists can do the sort of thing Hersch was doing on this tune - it's really in other areas (read on) where he blows away the competition.

Still Here - a Hersch-composed tribute to Wayne Shorter, the title also inevitably a reminder that Hersch himself is "still here" and could easily not be after his recent health problems.

Whirl - I think I've heard Hersch play this fairly recent composition (a tribute to dancer Suzanne Farrell) three times now, and it keeps getting better. The distinctive head with its "whirl"ing melodic pattern propels Hersch into the kind of lyrical improvisation at which he's virtually unmatched. He seems committed to never sacrificing his musical or intellectual integrity for the sake of lyricism, never takes the easy route or settles for mere prettiness where real, hard-earned beauty can be had.

Mandevilla - a Hersch bolero, also apparently of recent vintage. He really digs into this one and makes it surprisingly moving - delicate and deep.

Forerunner - Hersch uses this early Ornette tune as a "round robin" showcase for the other members of his trio. I've heard him do it before live and on record, but this version was the finest, most exciting version I've heard. I think Motian's presence is what gave the tune something extra. He was really in his element here, seeming to relish the opportunity to stretch out a bit and making the most of his breaks, each one a little explosion of drum music.

Andrew John - a Gress composition. Hersch seemed eager to do justice to his longtime triomate's tune, a slow-burning beauty with some of Hersch's loveliest playing of the night.

When Your Lover Has Gone - piano trio ballad mastery (click on the link embedded in the title to check out the history of this tune from a forgotten composer of the '20s and '30s, E.A. Swan). My concertgoing companion reported being slightly distracted by Motian's accompaniment on this one (a similar opinion is expressed in this review from later in the run). I was fascinated by his technique on the slower, quieter numbers - scraping the snare head to produce an almost brush-like sound with sticks, but never settling into a set, stock pattern. Even when playing quite minimally, Motian is always changing things up, always creating. [A long digression would be possible here on the evolution of Motian's style through the various phases of his long career, the role he's played in various groups, but I'm not going to attempt it.]

Although the temptation was to focus on Hersch throughout the set, I was rewarded any time I shifted my attention to what Gress and Motian were doing. Motian may have seemed slightly reined in at times, but he found a way to adapt to the context of Hersch's trio without sacrificing his own personality.

Evidence - I knew this trio was going to play some Monk, it was just a question of when. Hersch played a long unaccompanied intro, a flat-out virtuoso moment that was still squarely rooted in the tune and the spirit of Monk. When the bass and drums finally came in, Motian and Gress busted out of the gate to end the set with some thoroughbred trio.

Hersch's touch and tone, which many have commented on, are almost unparalleled, especially when he's playing quietly. He's commented on appreciating the Vanguard for the way the sound from the bandstand fills the room even at low volumes. In that room and at those low volumes, there's something entrancing about his playing. The individual notes can start to register as discreet sensations in a way that I don't think I can describe further without sounding like a Deadhead talking about Jerry's solo on China Cat from Winterland '77. In any case, I think you have to be in the same physical space as the piano for this to happen (or have a much better stereo system than I do). I just picked up Hersch's Live At The Village Vanguard album from 2003, and I'm interested to hear how well it captures the sound of the piano in the room (apparently, it has a reputation as one of the best Live At The Vanguards in terms of sound quality).

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