Fred Hersch's output as a composer includes an orchestrated setting of poems from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass as well as other art-song fare for singers. At Scullers Thursday night, we had a chance to hear Hersch as a pianist playing what he might call "jazzy jazz," with his longtime trio of bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson. But it was by no means conventional. He played American songbook standards, jazz standards, and a few of his lyrical, beguiling originals. Each piece took a singular approach and marked this trio, coming off of last year's double-CD Alive at the Vanguard (Palmetto), as special.
For one, they have a great sense of internal balance. Everyone played hard, but no one had to shout to be heard. In the first tune, the fast, 6/8 self-explanatory "Whirl" (dedicated to ballet legend Suzanne Farrell), McPherson worked his patterns with driven intensity, yet without, it seemed, ever raising his voice. Hébert's dancing counterlines sounded clearly, but unlike a lot of bassists, he wasn't overamplified and didn't overplay. Hersch's rising, falling, and whirling figures were on the same level of the band's internal sound mix.
It's all part of the band's personality, and one of many legacies of the original Bill Evans trio, where lead and accompaniment, foreground and background, play ambiguously across the soundstage. At times, there was a wonderful interplay of three-way contrary rhythmic motion. At other times, Hersch's left hand locked in unison lines with Hébert's bass.
The band often took its time about tunes, which was a good thing. Hersch likes to join Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman" with Evans's "Nardis," making for a dramatic development from here to there, from McPherson's evocative West African–style mallet work to straight 4/4 swing. In the interim, Hersch played Coleman's theme with a bit of pedal, evoking a hammered dulcimer.
Hébert got a couple of featured-solo spots, typically displaying guitar-like dexterity and a feel for tuneful structures and vocal intonation. But it was a different kind of extended solo — blistering and abstract — that brought down the house.
Hersch introduced what he called one of the greatest songs in the American popular songbook, Jerome Kern's "The Song Is You." He said most jazz players like it fast, but that he thought it should be played at ballad tempo. He did, and he brought out every sighing turn of the tune, so that the full chords on the final verse had a Debussyian orchestral beauty. Point made.