Jazz pianist Fred Hersch has been on a live album kick lately. His two Village Vanguard albums, Alone at the Vanguard and Alive at the Vanguard, both raked in considerable acclaim. The idea of returning to the studio intimidated Hersch, a man who has been playing jazz alongside some of the genre’s giants for over 35 years now. “I was a little apprehensive about going in and putting on headphones,” he admits in the press release for his trio album Floating. He begins the album’s liner notes with a preemptive ass-covering: “This CD is sequenced the way we play a live set in a club or in a concert.”
He needn’t worry so much.
The Fred Hersch Trio floats, whether they’re onstage or in a studio. Featuring John Hébert on bass and Eric McPherson on drums, their performance as a rhythm section reflects Hersch’s approach to the piano. When he plays softly, which is often, they grow soft with him. When he establishes a rubato, they pull up the anchor. And when he gets lyrical, they become more than just a reliable platform — they let their boss truly shine without making any grabs for glory. All of the material is treated the same way. Whether opening with Howard Dietz’s “You & the Night & the Music”, closing with Thelonious Monk’s “Let’s Cool One”, slowing the Camelot ballad “If Ever I Would Leave You” back to its original state or the seven Hersch originals in between, only the trio’s collective ego shines. As many of Hersch’s colleagues have commented, he is always in service to the music.
Floating may not be an assertive album by any stretch, but it still has variety. The title track sounds exactly the way you think it would — softly floating through a void, content to never nest. Two tracks away from that are some heavy stomping rhythms from the Big Easy in “Home Fries” (the track is dedicated to bassist Hébert, who comes from New Orleans). “You & the Night & the Music” is a pretty nifty way to kick off the album since it has the most rhythmic zest. As Fred Hersch plays a melody with his right hand and a disorienting counter-melody in his left hand, McPherson supports it with a most precarious form of syncopation with the sides of his sticks. In the hands of an amateur drummer, the main theme would doubtless fall apart. But all the rhythmic tricks in the world can’t derail this trio. The proof is in the album’s first five minutes.
“If Ever I Would Leave You” is when Hersch decides to indulge himself in balladry. Good thing too, because it’s lovely. Floating’s other lyrical moments came in the form of subtle experimentation while the Lerner/Loewe show tune standard is the pianist just channeling his inner Bill Evans. Hébert and McPherson leave plenty of space. Monk’s “Let’s Cool One” sounds strangely orthodox in the hands of Hersch’s trio. There once was a time when people were genuinely confused by tunes like “Let’s Cool One”, but times have changed. And musicians like Fred Hersch have come along, musicians who not only want their instruments to swing but to sing as well. Thus with Floating, Hersch remains the meadowlark of his field and the apple of romantic jazz’s eye.