Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Live in Europe: Lyrical Piano Icon Fred Hersch’s Funnest Album Ever?

Fred Hersch’s latest album Live in Europe is the new paradigm. The pianist and his long-running trio didn’t even know that their live radio broadcast from Brussels last November had been recorded until the tour was over. When he found out that there was a recording, Hersch listened back and was validated that the band had killed it just as he’d remembered. Instant album! It’s streaming at Spotify; Hersch, bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson kick off a weeklong stand at the Vanguard on July 24, with sets at 8:30 and 10:30.

This is a very fun, playful, even quirky set. Beyond the fact that these three musicians are one of the rare groups in jazz who’ve been together long enough to develop near-telepathic communication, they’re in an exceptionally good mood and the result is contagious. The fact that they were just going out and having a good time onstage rather than officially making a record probably has something to do with that.

Hersch is one of the greatest – maybe the greatest – current interpreter of Monk on the piano, and the way he takes the opening number, We See’s riffs dancing further and further outside, up to a series of ridiculously good jokes, makes for a hell of an opening. Jousting, deadpan straight-up swing and some clever rhythmic shifts beneath the pianist’s increasingly marionettish pulse take it out.

The group work their way animatedly into Snape Matings with hints of a ballad that never coalesces – the fun is leaving that carrot in front of the audience. McPherson’s subtle vaudevillian touches and Hebert’s suggestion of dropping everything for a mighty charge are the icing on the cake. Scuttlers, which follows, is more of an improvisation on a similarly carnivalesque, Frank Carlberg-ish theme, followed by the aptly titled Skipping and its rhythmic shifts, the group reaching toward a jaunty, ragtime-tinged swing.

Bristol Fog -a shout-out to the late British pianist John Taylor – is a plaintively elegaic, lustrous rainy-day jazz waltz and arguably the album’s most affecting track, with a long, mutedly clustering bass solo at the center. Then the group pulse into Newklypso – a Sonny Rollins dedication – Hersch’s lithe righthand and McPherson’s irrepressible offbeat accents held together by Hebert’s funky elasticity.

The Big Easy, a balmy, slowly swaying nocturne, has Ellingtonian gravitas but also the flickering playfulness of the beginning of the show. There’s also a little wry Donald Fagen in there too, which comes further to the forefront and then recedes in favor of fondly regal yet relaxed phrasing in Herbie Hancock’s Miyako.

The group take their time giving Wayne Shorter’s Black Nile a similarly considered launch and then swing it by the tail. Hersch brings the concert full circle with a solo take of Blue Monk as the encore, pulling strings all the way. Bands who have as much sheer fun onstage rarely have this much tightness, let alone the kind of chops these three guys were showing off in Belgium that night.

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July 17, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This Year’s Midsummer Night Swing Festival Kicks Off on a Powerfully Relevant Note

Midsummer Night Swing is a New York rite of passage. Everybody does it at one time or another. It’s hard to think of a more romantic date night. Every year starting at the end of June, Lincoln Center rolls out a real dancefloor at the southwestern corner of the campus in Damrosch Park, where an eclectic series of bands serenade the dancers with everything from 30s big band swing to 20s hot jazz, salsa dura, and this year, even classic honkytonk. Not everybody dances; lots of folks just come out for the music, or to watch the spectacle. By Manhattan jazz club standards, admission is a real bargain at $17, and there are deals if you go to multiple shows, as many people do.

This Tuesday, June 26 at 7:30 PM is kickoff night with a monster all-female band assembled by Lincoln Center specially for this occasion. They take their inspiration from the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated, all-female swing group. Trumpeter Bria Skonberg leads this multi-generational mix of allstar and rising star talent, which features Regina Carter on violin, Anat Cohen on clarinet and Champian Fulton on piano with Lakecia Benjamin, Sharel Cassity, Chloe Feoranzo, and Camille Thurman on saxes; Emily Asher on trombone; Linda Briceño and Jami Dauber also on trumpets; Endea Owens on bass and Savannah Harris on drums.

If you’re going there to listen, who among these artists should you single out? Pretty much all have them have gotten some ink here at one point or another. One of the most obvious choices is Anat Cohen, who turned in what was arguably the most riveting performance at last year’s Charlie Parker Festival with her epic, often hauntingly mysterious, klezmer-influenced tentet, testifying to her prowess in a big band setting.

On one hand, her latest album, Live in Healdsburg – streaming at Spotify and recorded in California a couple of years ago – is 180 degrees from that, a duo performance with the similarly lyrical Fred Hersch on piano. Yet in its own way, it’s just as lavish, an expansive, warmly conversational, vivid and unselfconsciously joyous collaboration.

Hersch opens the night’s first track, the aptly titled A Lark, with impressionistic, Debussy-esque belltones before Cohen gently dances in and then all of a sudden it’s a surreal update on ragtime. The push-pull between Cohen’s voice of reason and Hersch’s trickster is irresistibly fun, especially when the two switch roles and Cohen goes spiraling. Neither have ever glistened more than they do here.

Another Hersch number, Child’s Song is both more spaciously tender and tropical, giving Cohen a launching pad for her terse, crystalline, often balletesque lines, especially when Hersch mutes his insistent, pointillistic approach. Hersch begins the first Cohen tune here, The Purple Piece with a brooding austerity: it’s as far from over-the-top as you can get. Cohen maintains the bluesy bittersweetness with her aching melismas over an understated waltz rhythm, Hersch grounding it with his expressive neoromantic chords and occasional, more incisive shifts.

As they do with many of the songs here, they build from opacity to an understated swing and then playful, experimentation in a pretty radical remake of Isfahan. Then in in the last of the Hersch pieces, Lee’s Dream, they jump out of their shoes gracefully over a precise, distantly stride-influenced piano drive that bookends a flutteringly disorienting interlude.

From Hersch’s phantasmagorical intro to Cohen’s similarly canivalesque shifts between wistful blues and eerie microtones, the album’s most lavish number could be characterized as a haunting improvisation loosely based on Jimmy Rowles’ The Peacocks. Their approach to Fats Waller’s Jitterbug Waltz is similar if somewhat more flitting. They encore with a similarly individualistic version of Mood Indigo, Cohen’s low, meticulously somber approach lightened somewhat by Hersch’s spare, steady, glimmering architecture. There could be plenty of moments like this from a completely different crew on Tuesday night in the park.

June 23, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Erudite Piano Luminary Fred Hersch Winds Up His Stand at an Iconic Spot Tonight

August in New York: what a beautiful time to be here, isn’t it? Sure, it’s hot, but the hordes of recent invaders have all gone off to the Hamptons, or wherever they stash their inheritances – or simply back to mom and dad in Bloomfield Hills or Lake Oswego. It didn’t used to be this way; then again, it didn’t used to be this hot. Let’s enjoy it while we can, shall we? For those of us in the mood to revel in a cosmopolitan Old New York experience, pianist Fred Hersch is winding up his stand at the Village Vanguard tonight, August 21 with his long-running trio, bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson. Sets are at 8:30 and 10:30 PM; cover is $30 and includes a drink; today being Sunday, there won’t be the usual crowds of tourists making their pilgrimage here

Hersch’s aptly titled latest album is Sunday Night at the Vanguard (due out momentarily and therefore not yet at Spotify). It’s a similarly lyrical follow-up to his lavish 2012 Alive at the Vanguard double album. This one is as perennially fresh, and bursting with joie de vivre, and spontaneity, and erudition as anything the guy’s ever recorded. Even in the most rigorous, uppermost echelons of jazz, Hersch’s craftsmanship stands out. Is he a NEA Jazz Master yet? OK, he’s still a little young for that.

That this album is a typical Hersch performance, not just in terms of the track-by-track, speaks to that. Hersch’s trio has a rare chemistry that reflects years of long nights on the road as well as its interweave of personalities, Hersch both sage and wit, Hebert the freewheeling groovemeister and McPherson the king of subtlety. The three ease their way in with a midtempo take of a rare Rodgers and Hammerstein number, A Cockeyed Optimist; McPherson’s almost impreceptibly crescendoing shuffle drive is fascinating to hear unfolding. Likewise, his misterioso cymbal bell intro, in tandem with Hersch’s minimalist misterioso approach, ramps up the suspense on the evening’s first original, Serpentine, an intricately interwoven portrait of an enigmatic Ornette Coleman associate, part Monk, part baroque, with a ghostly bass-and-drums interlude at the center..

The Optimum Thing also echoes Monk, Hersch putting an uneasily playful spin on a series of Irving Berlin changes, an acerbically swinging blend of quaint and off-center; how well the pianist manages to disguise what his bandmates are up to is pricelessly funny. Calligram (for Benoit Delbecq), a shout-out to his individualistic French colleague pairs the steady, starlit anchor of the bass and drums against Herseh’s occasionally wry, deep-space explorations. Then the three pick up the pace again with the tersely catchy, allusively latin-tinged postbop of Blackwing Palomino.

Hersch slows down the Beatles’ For No One to reveal its inner cavatina, then makes an eerily stairstepping music-box theme out of it. The three do Kenny Wheeler’s Everybody’s Song But My Own as a jaunty, pointillistic, altered cha-cha, then give Jimmy Rowles’ gothic jazz favorite The Peacocks an epic, dynamically shifting intensity, from the bandleader’s moody solo intro to a white-knuckle intensity over Hebert’s stern pulse. The trio close the set by swinging through the almost cruel, knowing ironies of Monk’s We See. The encore is a solo take of Hersch’s favorite closing. bemedictine ballad, Valentine. If there’s anybody who can be canonized as the rightful heir to Thelonious Monk – in terms of purposefulness, shadowy tunefulness and just plain fun – Hersch is as good a choice as any.

August 21, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fred Hersch and Julian Lage Make a Memorable Live Duo Album

The crowd at the Japanese-owned Kitano Hotel in Murray Hill this past February got a tightly choreographed performance from pianist Fred Hersch and guitarist Julian Lage. Throughout their duo album Free Falling, recorded during their stand there, the two keep a strict tempo: no rubato or free interludes or similar messing around. That rich harmonic convergence is a clinic in  brisk, steady phrasing – imagine a snare-and-hi-hat shuffle beat underneath and the picture is complete. Much of the time it’s hard to distinguish who’s playing what, the performance is that seamless. The two will be at the Blue Note on November 25-27. no  doubt reprising and reimagining many of the songs on the album.

The opening number, Song without Words #4 opens as a neoromantic theme and gives way to a Brazilian-tinged romp highlighted by Lage’s solo – Egberto Gismonti-ish in the best sense of the word. Down Home, a Bill Frisell homage (and a reminder of Hersch’s memorable late-90s collaboration with the guitarist) evokes a strolling Willoughby, Connecticut of the mind (google the Twilight Zone episode if it’s not familiar), a rustic pastoral pre-ragtime theme that gives Lage a launching pad to take it up all the way.

Heartland – for Art Lande – gives Lage the chance to build a gently lyrical wee-hours theme. The title track – a Gismonti homage – is a spectacularly pointillistic neo-baroque duet with some particularly choice lo-hi contrasts from Hersch’s dancing piano and Lage’s Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds glimmer. Sam Rivers’ Beatrice gets reinvented as a similarly lithe song without words – this could be Gismonti too. Song without Words #3: Tango messes with a straight-up Argentine beat, Lage’s lines careful and incisive as Hersch builds to a dance. Stealthiness, a Jim Hall homage, gives Lage a chance to go just thisfar outside: there’s a devious Halloweenishness that Hall would not doubt approve of, whether Lage is jumping at the chance to take it doublespeed or let those double-string bends ring out loud and just long enough to pack a wallop. Gravity’s Pull – writtten for Mary Jo Salter – finally backs off on the steady tempo a little, deviously alluding to the REM college radio hit from a lifetime ago with a tightly interlocking polyrhythmic attack. The two wind up the album with a take of Monk’s Dream which builds to a droll game of chase before Hersch brings everything back to a purist bluesiness.

October 28, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Parade of Jazz and Classical Talent Showcases the Sonics at Subculture

There was no need for the parade of musicians on the bill this evening at Subculture to do anything more than phone in their performances. After all, they were only there to give a by-invite-only audience of media and a few friends an idea of how both amplified and unamplified acts sound in the newly renovated space. But they did far more than that: if the quality of most of these artists is an indication of what the venue will be booking in the coming months, that’s something to look forward to. And the sonics here are exquisite, to rival the Village Vanguard and Carnegie Hall: Subculture has quietly vaulted to the ranks of Manhattan’s top-tier listening rooms.

On the unamplified side, a-cappella quartet New York Polyphony – Christopher Dylan Herbert, Craig Phillips, Geoffrey Williams and Steven Caldicott Wilson – blended voices richly and intricately in pre-baroque Palestrina motets and then with a slyly joyous new arrangement of Rosie the Riveter. The up-and-coming ACJW String Quartet – Grace Park, Clara Lyon, John Stulz and Hannah Collins – made energetic work of a Philip Glass excerpt and then took what could have been Schubert’s String Quartet No. 12 – if Schubert had finished writing it – to the next level. The famous nocturnal theme became a suspenseful springboard for animated, even explosive cadenzas, a mystery unfolding with an increasing sense of triumph. Student ensembles can be erratic, but they also bring fresh ears and ideas to a performance and this was a prime example of that kind of confluence.

On the more groove-oriented side, pianist/chanteuse Laila Biali sang her driving, playful new arrangement of This Could Be the Start of Something New with Joel Frahm on tenor sax, Ike Sturm on bass and Jared Schonig on drums. The highlight of the night, unsurprisingly, was pianist Fred Hersch, who delivered an understatedly bittersweet, strolling blend of ragtime-tinged pastoral shades on Down Home, his homage to Bill Frisell (with whom he collaborated memorably about fifteen years ago), a standout track from Hersch’s new live album, Flying Free, with guitarist Julian Lage. Singer Jo Lawry then joined Hersch and over lush, glimmering, Debussy-esque cascades, delivered a biting, half-sung, half-narrated reflection on clueless parades of tourists in the Louvre crowding around to take pics and videos of the Mona Lisa – and then moving on. The two wound up their brief set, joined by Richie Barshay on hand drum, for an electrically dancing, animatedly conversational take of the new album’s bossa-flavored title track, an Egberto Gismonti tribute.

September 16, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another Brilliant Concert Album from Fred Hersch

Like so many musicians before him, Fred Hersch has found his muse at the Village Vanguard, no great surprise considering that he was the first pianist ever booked there for a weeklong solo gig. Unlike Alone at the Vanguard, his stellar solo recording of a single night there in late 2010, his new double-cd set, Alive at the Vanguard – just out on Palmetto – collects the highlights from his most recent stand this past February with his inspired trio of bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson. Hersch is a meticulous, eclectic, purist polymath, a Monk disciple with Bill Evans heart. A mix of vivid, mostly slow-to-midtempo originals and classics, this is not an ostentatious album, but it’s a deep one.

There’s a lot of music here: almost two hours’ worth. The trio’s chemistry is clear right off the bat, Hebert’s dancing, incisive bass and McPherson’s judiciously deft, terse brush and cymbal work fused with Hersch’s trademark lyricism. The album opens ausiciously with Havana, an insistently cosmopolitan nocturne, artfully switching up tempos. Tristesse, a Paul Motian homage, maintains an elegaically glimmering neoromantic atmosphere with a vivid sense of longing. Fittingly, it takes on a rhythmic pulse as the drum chair remains silent in tribute to Hersch’s former collaborator. Segment – the only Charlie Parker composition in a minor key – is precise to a fault, fluidly moving between tempos as Hersch engages McPherson in a cool chromatically-fueled crescendo up to a brisk latin shuffle.

They whisper their way conversationally and almost conspiratorially through a diptych of Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman and Miles Davis’ Nardis. Dream of Monk, from Hersch’s theatre suite My Coma Dreams, is arguably the high point of the album, a spot-on blend of terse tunefulness and off-center irony: it’s so good it could pass for Monk himself, through yet another devious series of tempo changes, from swing to an allusive waltz and then back again. Bracingly modern third-stream atonalities eventually give way to moody melodicism on Rising, Falling, followed by a carefully bouncy, shiny take of Softly As in a Morning Sunrise, the first of two tunes from the Sonny Rollins book, Hebert’s pulse leading Hersch out of the shadows. The first cd closes with a suavely swinging, ragtime-hued take of a Hersch favorite, Doxy.

The second disc’s appropriately titled first track, Opener, is a showcase for McPherson, as he builds his solo with the same judicious spirit that pervades this album. After a dynamically-charged take of I Fall in Love Too Fast, they romp through the deliciously bouncing, wryly dark Jackalope: the creature may be a cartoon, but this one has bite, Hersch enjoying himself throughout a long vamp that eventually reaches toward latin territory before returning to the big, bad opening riff.

Another pairing, of Russ Freeman’s The Wind into Alec Wilder’s Moon and Sand, is especially choice, beginning dark, hypnotic and lyrical, then turning the second number into a fugue with a strong, funky pulse. Sartorial, a tribute to Ornette Coleman’s fashion sense, moves from brightly clustering coyness to a latin flair, followed by a trickily rhythmic From This Moment On. They wind up the album with a segue from an expansive but measured take of Oscar Hammerstein’s The Song Is You into a joyously spiraling, swinging, relatively obscure Monk piece, Played Twice. Everything here is consummately thought out and in the moment: arguably the best piano jazz album of 2012. Vijay Iyer, double dare you to tackle any of the originals here.

September 23, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fred Hersch: Good to Be Alive at the Vanguard

This is one of those rare albums that will appeal to casual listeners just as much as headphone wearers seeking something more cerebral or emotionally impactful. In a lot of ways, it’s a good-to-be-alive album. A couple of years ago, no one knew whether or not iconic pianist Fred Hersch would be around to make this, considering how few people have survived a two-month coma, much less returned to their old selves afterward. But that’s what Hersch did, even after having had to relearn his instrument. His new album, Alone at the Vanguard is oldschool, being the entire final set of the final night, December 5, 2010 of his solo stand at that jazz mecca. Surprisingly, it was Hersch, not Ellington or McCoy Tyner or even Brad Mehldau who was the first pianist to get a solo weeklong gig there. Hersch brags that he was “in the zone” for this set, which is an understatement, and after all he’s been through, he deserves to blow his own horn a little. Hersch can do many things well: here he features a richly chordal, third-stream attack, late Romantic emotional intelligence through the randomizing prism of jazz.

In the Wee Small Hours of Morning, which opens the album, ripples with that chordal attack and a long, fascinating series of lefthand/righthand tradeoffs, starlit ambience shifting to a relaxed, wee-hours vibe. The jaunty Down Home, dedicated to Bill Frisell, has a sly Donald Fagen feel and includes a devious Wizard of Oz quote (no, it’s not Somewhere over the Rainbow). The most memorable track here, Echoes, builds from a hypnotic kaleidoscope of noirisms to expressive cascades and a vividly vigorous overture of sorts: of all the songs here (and they are songs in the purest sense of the word), this is the most solidly upbeat, less defiant than simply enjoying the moment. Likewise, Pastorale (a Schumann homage) crescendos with an almost baroque, fugal architecture – the conversation goes back and forth between the hands and never gets tiresome.

Lee’s Dream has a surprisingly sprightly, ragtime-ish elegance, something of a surprise for a song dedicated to Lee Konitz, legend of cool jazz. Jacob de Bandolim’s Doce de Coco slowly and fascinatingly evinces a bossa bounce and hints of the blues from the Brazilian composer’s matter-of-factly fluid lines. Eubie Blake’s Memories of You gets a steely, often clenched-teeth intensity that winds down with a bitter grace; Hersch closes on a balmy, bluesy note with Sonny Rollins’ Doxy (to appreciate the warmth of this take on it, you ought to hear Jon Irabagon’s relentlessly assaultive version on his Foxy album). Fred Hersch will be at the Jazz Standard March 2-6 with a typically first-class cast of characters including guitarist Julian Lage and tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger,who’s rightfully riding a big wave of buzz at the moment.

February 25, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment