Fred Hersch's glisteningly beautiful pianism

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Fred Hersch

Fred Hersch (September 21, 2012)

One hesitates to leap to too many conclusions based on the work that pianist Fred Hersch turned in on his newest recording, "Alive at the Vanguard," and his performance Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase.

But in both instances, Hersch played with a stripped-to-its-essence simplicity that has benefited his art considerably.

A widely admired musician, Hersch always has shown a poet's touch at the piano, finding shades and half-shades of tone that elude less subtle players. At the same time, though, his work sometimes has veered toward the precious, with its combination of delicate colors, ethereal textures and florid figurations.

In "Alive at the Vanguard" and in concert at the Jazz Showcase, however, Hersch's pianism conveyed a sharper tonal edge and a more concise approach to melodic lines than one has come to expect from him. The crystalline clarity of this work made for gripping solos, even if a greater range of dynamics would have enhanced an already strong performance.

Regrettably, Hersch wasn't leading precisely the trio from the recording, one of the pianist's best. Though drummer Eric McPherson was heard to great advantage on both the album and at the Showcase, bassist Drew Gress sat in for John Hebert for this engagement. But Gress has a deep history with Hersch, and you could hear it in the fluidity of their musical dialogues. Even so, the extraordinarily elastic give-and-take on the recording among Hersch, McPherson and Hebert didn't quite materialize in the altered lineup.

Nonetheless, Gress stands as a first-rate bassist very much in tune with Hersch's exquisitely fragile aesthetic, and the bassist acquitted himself well in repertoire from "Alive at the Vanguard" and other music, as well. Drummer McPherson brought to the stage the same kind of rhythmic control and sensitivity of attack that distinguished his contributions to the recording.

Hersch devoted much of his first set to music with various kinds of Latin-jazz impulses, opening with his "Havana," from "Alive at the Vanguard." Here was the essence of the music yet to come: lilting melody lines riding a gently swaying but unmistakably syncopated backbeat. Throughout, Hersch spun phrases of considerable interest, enhancing their appeal with splashes of color in his right hand and surging rhythmic ideas in the left.

The spirit of Antonio Carlos Jobim pervaded "Sad Poet," which Hersch dedicated to the Brazilian master. You could hear the ghost of Jobim in the high craft of Hersch's main theme as well as the gorgeous-but-complex character of his harmonies. Better still, Hersch and the trio paced the performance meticulously, imperceptibly building from the stillness and softness of the opening pages to the relative vigor and fullness of its close.

If you didn't know better, you might have assumed that "Mandevilla" was an ancient, anonymous Brazilian folk song. In fact, it's a Hirsch original that draws persuasively on South American rhythmic vernacular. The high point here came in Hirsch's solo, a model of understated emotion and succinct phrasemaking.

For all the purling lyric beauty of Hersch's account of Jerome Kern's "The Song is You" and the harmonic ingenuity of Hersch's distillation of Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman," however, most of this set hovered at medium tempos and volume levels. Sharper contrasts would have made this music still more striking.

But there was no questioning the allure of Hersch's pianism, nor the poetic economy of his improvisations. He remains a singular voice in jazz, welcomed wherever gentle, freshly original music is valued.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

Fred Hersch Trio
When
: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.
Admission: $20-$25; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com

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