Fred Hersch Trio

Alive at the Vanguard

Palmetto ****

The first striking aspect of this 2-CD set recorded during a five-night run at the famed New York club in February is the superb sound engineering of the album. So take a bow Tyler McDiarmid and Geoffrey Countryman. But good sound is only the icing on the cake of any album truth be told, and the trio of the 56-year-old Hersch, who has battled the effects of HIV for many years and has even survived a two-month coma, is on superlative form, along with bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson who both played in Andrew Hill’s last band, on this album of seven new Hersch tunes, four from the Great American Songbook’s panoply of treasure, and seven jazz standards, the latter including ‘Softly as in a Morning Sunrise’ which John Coltrane recorded in the Vanguard in 1961. So no pressure!

Towards the end of the first CD on the penultimate track Hersch’s playful version rewards its inclusion and is a clear highlight overall, although the sandwiching of Russ Freeman’s ‘The Wind’ into Alec Wilder’s ‘Moon and Sand’, with its softly lapping ebb and flow on the second disc, which also has another clever segueing of ‘The Song Is You’ and Monk’s ‘Played Twice’ at the end, comes movingly close.

Wonderfully woody bass, drums you’d swear you can hear the skin’s very wrinkles of, and deep expressive improvising drawing out the fertile ideas in Hersch’s head, make this a must for fans and more than worth the purchase price for Hersch newcomers alike. It’s a piano trio that has no fussy gimmicks, no pop or rock sensibility at all, but is never pretentious in a cod chamber goulash. A wonderful album, that works because it has a cleverly assembled narrative arc disc-by-disc (the second is less intense but possibly more organic than the first) capturing a master pianist at the top of his game presented by the admirable Palmetto, a record label that values taste and presentation over the fast food approach of certain very famous jazz megacorporations. No one ever named a ballad ‘The Takeover’, did they?

Stephen Graham

Released on 11 September in the US

Fred Hersch plays solo at the Purcell Room in London on 2 October; The Apex, Bury St Edmunds (3 Oct); St George’s, Bristol (4 Oct); Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton (5 Oct); The Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock (7 Oct); The Venue, Leeds College of Music, Leeds (9 Oct); Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester (10 Oct); The Church of St John the Evangelist, Oxford (11 Oct, note new venue); and Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh (12 Oct).