Fred Hersch Trio + 2
Palmetto Records PM 2099

Back in 1977, as a change of pace, pianist Bill Evans added saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh to his trio of the time for CROSSCURRENTS, a Fantasy LP that amplified and enhanced his usual sounds.

Fred Hersch, who is arguably Evans’ heir in subtle inventiveness, does almost the same thing on this CD. The results are outstanding, giving an added robustness to the pianist’s compositions, which have a tendency to be overly fragile and prosaically mainstream in other situations.

Hersch, who has played with everyone from Stan Getz to Gary Burton, taught jazz at several schools and received honors from organizations such as the French Academie du Jazz and the National Endowment for the Arts, doesn’t change his style in any way here. Yet he doesn’t prevent brassman Ralph Alessi, who has done lots of work with pianist Uri Caine and saxist Tony Malaby, who works in bassist Mark Helias’ trio, from adding the sort of smears and bent notes they would play in other circumstances. Backing all this is his longtime rhythm section of bassist Drew Gress and drummer Nasheet Waits.

The pieces that are most impressive are those which aren’t Trio + 2, but definite quintet conceptions, with the zenith probably reached with “Miss B.” and “Lee’s Dream”. The latter — dedicated to Konitz, incidentally — is based on the chord changes of “You Stepped Out of a Dream”, with Malaby’s tenor taking on light, breathy almost alto-like tones. The resulting timbres sound midway between Konitz’s alto and Marsh’s tenor with a spiky, POMO fillip. For his part, Hersch strums and pumps piano lines that finally resolve themselves into bouncy, accented chording.

Wriggling with energy, the former tune contrasts chromatic tones from Alessi and buzzing slurs from Malaby with right-handed piano chording that turn into a dance of descending arpeggios and double-timed metronomic timekeeping. The tenorist then adds some smears and double tonguing, the trumpeter held notes and high register squeals, and the piece ends with a hearty thwack from Waits’ drumstick.

If Hersch has become more open over the years, his friend and dedicatee of “Down Home”, guitarist Bill Frisell, appears to have gone in the opposite director. In truth the stride piano and honky-tonk echoes the pianist adds to his solo here sound a lot more “down home” then the countrypolitan licks Frisell displays on his more recent CDs. With Waits’ cross stocking out a shuffle beat, Malaby honking and Alessi sounding high-pitched triplets, this turns the piece into a light finger snapper. Incredibly enough as well, Hersch appears to be sounding out completely different lines with either hand. Eventually he impels the tune back to a stroll and ends it with in tinkling crescendo.

Other tracks lack these high standards, though not one is any less than professional and technically immaculate. Along the way, Malaby proves that he can be play as coolly as any 1950s West Cost saxist; Gress walks with aplomb; Waits amazes with his percussion restraint; and on the gentle but gloomy “A Lark” — dedicated to Kenny Wheeler — Alessi proves that low-key flugelhorn can perfectly replicate the sound of that British resident, Canadian brassman.

Hersch’s collection of awards and reputation as a straightahead master player shouldn’t drive away more adventurous listeners. This CD proves that in the right circumstances and with the right input, he can loosen up and cook.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. A Riddle Song 2. And I Love Her 3. Miss B. 4. Black Dog Pays A Visit 5. A Lark 6. Down Home 7. Rain Waltz 8. Marshall’s Plan 9. Lee’s Dream 10. The Chase

Personnel: Ralph Alessi (trumpet and flugelhorn); Tony Malaby (tenor saxophone); Fred Hersch (piano); Drew Gress (bass); Nasheet Waits (drums)