Fred Hersch needs no introduction to jazz fans. He has been dazzling and utterly himself for over three decades, playing the piano in a lyrical modern style that grows from jazz tradition — for example, he plays standards with both reverence and inventiveness — but also seems highly personal. Fred Hersch has famously been an influence on today’s younger generation of jazz piano masters such as Brad Mehldau and Ethan Iverson, but he himself seems in perpetual motion, playing across styles and instrumentations while always remaining himself.
Hersch’s mature work of the last decade or more stands tall in the new century’s canon. From solo piano recitals of daring beauty to settings for Walt Whitman’s lyric poetry that include voices and horns, Hersch is unbound by convention. His music is recommended without exception or reservation.
Hersch has just released a trio recording from early in his career that reminds us just how vigorous and exciting the pianist was from the start. Sarabande, recorded almost 30 years ago, featured Charlie Haden on bass and Joey Baron on drums, uniting two players who Hersch had worked with in different contexts. The program is lyrical, of course, but also thrilling and intense. There are three Tin Pan Alley classics, three jazz standards from Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, and Jimmy Rowles, and three original songs from the leader, one of which has since become a standard itself, heard here in its first incarnation.
Because Haden is on the date, the Coleman song is special. Haden is the greatest there ever was at generating spontaneous harmonic logic from a free composition, and the band moves from a loping syncopation to Cadillac-smooth walking swing. Hersch creates new melody with elegant connection to the written line, and Baron keeps the conversation popping. In his liner notes for the reissue, Hersch dedicates the new release to Haden, calling him “one of the most important figures in jazz”. On every track, but particularly this one, Haden’s playing bears out such an ovation.
“The Peacocks” and “Blue in Green” are just the kind of jazz ballads that highlight Hersch’s best qualities as a pianist. Each is harmonically gorgeous and impressionistic, and they require a pianist to sculpt sound so that a performance is more than just superficially beautiful. Hersch creates these moments so many different ways. On the former tune, there are several moments when his articulation of notes in the piano’s highest register tickle us in unexpected patterns and rhythms. On the latter, the interplay between the pianist’s two hands creates astonishing rhythmic effects that build momentum and feeling is beautiful momentary rushes.
The trio approaches show tunes with verve and driving swing. “I Have Dreamed” (from The King and I) is not overplayed by jazz musicians, though Hersch’s musical soulmate, saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom also plays it beautifully. Here, Baron gives it Latin feel that pushes the trio to an ecstatic flow that keeps moving higher into the sky. Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love” is set up at a quick tempo from its pedal-point opening to its cooking swing. Much like Bill Evans, Hersch is a lyrical player who is still a master of fast tempos. The fact that he never loses his penchant for melody doesn’t mean that he doesn’t bear down and fly! “This Heart of Mine” by Harry Warren falls in at a relaxed mid-tempo swing that is timeless in appeal.
Hersch’s three original tunes remind us that, from the start, he has been a wonderful composer. “Sarabande” is a sumptuous, slow jazz waltz, and “Cadences” — the one track on the whole record that feels only middling after 30 years — sounds a bit like a Keith Jarrett tune from the prior decade. But Hersch’s song written specifically for Charlie Haden, “Child’s Song”, is given a nearly definitive reading here: chiming in major chord joy, throbbing and bouncing easily, coming into your ears like the morning call of a sunny day, stepping aside early for a Haden solo that is graceful but still full of gravitas, fun and profound too.
As always, it is a revelation to hear Haden down at the bottom of a perfectly balanced band, resounding and unique, recognizable immediately just by his touch and his time.
But the same things are true of pianist Fred Hersch, whose voice and art were foundational for other artists around the time of this sparking recording. He’s just as good — actually even better — today. Which is . . . wow.