Friday, July 11, 2014

Fred Hersch + Eric Reed, Monk & Beyond

One could argue all day and night about who are the great contemporary pianists; there are so many good players who are  composers and bandleaders.  Since moving to New York City in 1977, Fred Hersch has worked with numerous jazz giants and produced quite a body of work as a leader.  Over the past decade, he has created 2 long-form works, "Leaves of Grass: The Walt Whitman Project" and the un-recorded "Coma Dreams", he has collaborated with clarinetist Nico Gori, trumpeter Ralph Alessi and guitarist Julian Lage, recorded a "double-trio" project with fellow pianist Beno├«t Delbecq, produced several solo albums and worked with artists such as Nancy King and the Caswell Sisters.

One of the pianist's favorite settings is his Trio, especially the latest incarnation with bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson.  Their glorious new recording, "Floating" (Palmetto Records) is the ensemble's second studio effort (2010's "Whirl" was the first) and is a delightful 10-song journey filled with handsome melodies, magnificent interactions and strong solos.  "You & The Night & The Music", the Howard Dietz - Arthur Schwartz standard from 1934, opens the program with an impressive of piano work (Hersch's melodic and rhythmic ingenuity stands out) and don't ignore McPherson's inventive drum work. The following 7 tracks are originals, 6 of which are dedications.  They range from the lovely "West Virginia Rose", a short solo piano melody for his mother and grandmother, to the sprightly "Home Fries", a New Orleans-flavored treat for bassist Hebert, to the haunting and emotionally charged "Far Away", a piece written for Israeli-born pianist/composer Shimrit Shosan who passed away in 2012 at the age of 29. Other tunes are dedications to Esperanza Spalding ("Arcata"), pianist Kevin Hays ("Autumn Haze") and artist Maaria Wirkkala ("A Speech to the Sea" - it's her installation that graces the front cover).

The remaining tracks include a truly lovely reading of the Lerner-Loewe classic "If Ever I Would Leave You"; Hersch caresses the melody while Hebert provides melody counterpoint amidst McPherson's whisper-soft brushes work. No Hersch recording is complete without a Thelonious Monk song - in this instance, it's a "chill" version of "Let's Cool One", which dances atop a buoyant bass line and sparkling cymbals.  The musicians swing with glee, a pleasing reminder how Mr. Monk continues to inspire players and audiences alike (see below as well).

"Floating" will more than satisfy the fans of the Fred Hersch Trio; in fact, it should whet one's appetitive to see this ensemble live (Messrs. Hersch, Hebert and McPherson will be at The Village Vanguard from July 15-20 and on tour in October and November - find out more at Enjoy!

Like Fred Hersch above, Eric Reed has been playing piano since he could walk (age 2 in his case).  He first came to national notice working with Wynton Marsalis (1990-95) and has world with a slew of fine artists, in and outside the realm of jazz.  He's recorded over 20 CDs as a leader.  "The Adventurous Monk" is his 6th release on Savant Records and the 3rd to be dedicated to the music of Thelonious Monk.  What Reed has been able to accomplish with his exploration of Monk's music is to make sound fresh and relevant in the 21st Century, treating the original versions as inspirations to be himself.

Joining him for this "adventure" is the classy rhythm section of Ben Williams (bass) and Gregory Hutchinson (drums) with appearances by tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake (3 tracks) and Charenee Wade (vocal on "Dear Ruby (Ruby My Dear")).  Reed is not afraid to "swing" as he and the rhythm section display on the opener, "Thelonious."  Hutchinson sets the breath-taking pace, Williams joining with rapid "walking" bass lines and Blake rising out of the piano solo.  "Work" is all play for the Trio plus Blake,with the leader delivering a delightful dancing solo before the saxophone gets down and bluesy.  Reed's sporadic chords and Hutchinson's martial snare drum coalesce into an exploratory performance of "Evidence", in which the drummer keeps the beat while Reed and Williams have numerous interactions. Hutchinson introduces the sweet take on "Pannonica" with his mallets on the tom-tom; Reed's slippery solo is a highlight as he dances atop the subtle rhythmic work.

Ms. Wade, who was the first runner-up in the 2010 Thelonious Monk Vocal Competition (to Cecile McLorin Salvant), makes the most of her one appearance.  There's more than a touch of Carmen McRae in her take of "Dear Ruby" (lyrics by Sally Swisher for a 1988 recording by Ms. McRae), a charming ballad where she is accompanied by piano and bass.  Reed's accompaniment is spare but effective, coloring where he can but making sure the spotlight stays on the vocalist.

The CD closes with a Monkian take of "Ba-lues Bolivar Ba-lues-are" (extra "s" in the first word) - the crisp drum work, the "strolling" bass lines and Reed's splendid solo make for fine listening.  The majority of the piano solo pays homage to the style of the composer, quirky lines that have a strong blues flavor. The interaction of the bassist and the drummer is such a delight.

"The Adventurous Monk" should appeal to aficionados of Eric Reed, Thelonious Monk and modern jazz.  Reed and company are not beholden to sounding like Monk revivalists, opting instead to be themselves and have fun.  No doubt, Mr. Monk would appreciate that attitude and approach - you should as well.  For more information, go to

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