Fred Hersch Trio, 'Live at the Village Vanguard' (2003)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


Fred Hersch already had a lot of mileage in his rearview when he recorded Live at the Village Vanguard, in the spring of 2002. An acutely intelligent pianist who hit the ground running in the '70s, he put in serious apprenticeship hours with Joe Henderson, Stan Getz, Art Farmer and others. But a turn-of-the-century run of gleaming songbook albums (on Nonesuch) had begun to make him feel pigeonholed. He came to the Vanguard ready to throw down.

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The gig introduced a terrific new trio, with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Nasheet Waits. Two weeks later, I interviewed Hersch at his loft in SoHo for a profile in JazzTimes. "I felt like: ‘I just want to make a jazz record,'” he told me. “Kind of a no-muss, no-fuss, just capture what we do. A record that’s about the playing — but also hopefully, if it all comes out right, when you put it on you really feel like you’re there. You should feel like you’re sitting two tables back, just digging the band. I love that.”

Hersch had another album in the works when we spoke: Leaves of Grass, a brilliantly realized suite inspired by the poetry of Walt Whitman, with vocals by Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry. Last fall I found myself back in the SoHo loft interviewing Hersch about this very suite, for an episode of Jazz Night in America. We also talked about ood Things Happen Slowly: A Life in and Out of Jazz, the memoir that Hersch had just published, to deserving acclaim.

But back to Live at the Village Vanguard. I could just as easily selected a more recent album by Hersch — say, Sunday Night at the Vanguard, which chronicles his current trio, featuring John Hébert on bass and Eric McPherson on drums. (The same trio released another fabulous effort, Live in Europe, this year.) For that matter, I could have chosen Leaves of Grass

One reason I didn't: I see the 2003 Vanguard album as pivotal, and will confess to a certain sentimental attachment. There are no fewer than six Hersch originals on the album, and this was noteworthy at the time: he was really just beginning to come into his own in that respect. Listen to "Endless Stars," a flowing ballad in straight-eighth time, and you hear the full measure of Hersch's gift for melodic construction, and for a thematic development that feels effortless. 

Besides which, this is a song, in the fullest sense. In fact, it was only a year later that Norma Winstone released a version with her lyrics, calling it simply "Stars." (Hersch is her partner throughout the album, called Songs & Lullabies.) I'm including that here, too.

 

Purchase Live at the Village Vanguard at Amazon or Discogs.

Jane Ira Bloom, 'Chasing Paint: Jane Ira Bloom Meets Jackson Pollock' (2003)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


Jane Ira Bloom is a soprano saxophonist whose track record of excellence goes back more than 40 years. She isn't a doubler, a tenor player who also plays the straight horn; the soprano is her chosen instrument, and she has remained faithful to its sonic properties.

Her sound on the horn is round and clear, and she takes every advantage of the possibilities its form presents. She likes to incorporate a sort of Doppler effect into her improvising; you can hear her do this at times on the title track to Chasing Paint, below. It also factored into her trio album Early Americans, which earned her (and engineer Jim Anderson) the 2018 Grammy Award for Best Surround Sound Album.

Bloom has also been at the forefront of contemporary improvisers engaging with a theme. Her most recent album is Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson; she has done commissioned work for NASA. Chasing Paint is a sterling example of her instinct for interdisciplinary connection; Bloom drew inspiration both from the formal properties of Jackson Pollock's canvases and the kinetic nature of his process. She urged her band to think as if they were painting with sound, and everyone seemed to grasp the idea. (In the track below, pay special attention to Fred Hersch, especially in the free-tempo elaboration from around 1:45 through the solo that begins at 3:10.)

I wanted to tap into how it felt to hear this music fresh, and stumbled across my review of the album in JazzTimes, from July 2003. 

Jane Ira Bloom, Chasing Paint

Among the many misperceptions about abstract expressionist icon Jackson Pollock is the assumption that his work is an undisciplined expression of id. It’s probably true that Pollock’s painterly oeuvre, imbued with dramatic movement, owes a debt to the power of catharsis. But to stop there is to ignore its serious compositional features and the rigors that led to its inception.

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It’s doubtful that anyone will make the same mistake with Chasing Paint, Jane Ira Bloom’s latest disc. Funded by a fellowship from Chamber Music America and the Doris Duke Jazz Ensembles Project, the album conveys a meticulous air even as it heeds jazz’s freer impulses.

Bloom’s soprano saxophone is characteristically fleet and full-toned, capturing all the angular caprice of a brush on canvas. Matching her at every stroke are pianist Fred Hersch (a preternaturally intuitive partner for the better part of two decades) and the incomparable rhythm team of bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Bobby Previte (Bloom’s compatriots since the ’70s and ’90s, respectively). Altogether, the quartet achieves synergy of the highest order and a familiarity that never slips into complacence.

Because Bloom originally envisioned this project as a suite, it makes sense that her compositions add up to a variegated whole. The disc ranges from bright-eyed swing (“Unexpected Light”) to elegiac balladry (“On Seeing JP”) to halting abstraction (“Alchemy”). At times, Bloom’s trademark electronic effects manage to evoke a drip painting’s network of color and line. Yet even at its most elliptical, this album remains wholly approachable. Like a Pollock canvas, it needn’t be explained to be understood.

Chasing Paint can be purchased on Amazon, or streamed on Spotify or Apple Music.