Fred Hersch

Alone at the Vanguard

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Alone at the Vanguard Review

by Rick Anderson

Pianist Fred Hersch has made quite a few brilliant jazz albums over the course of his career, and several of them have been solo piano recordings, but this one is something special. Alone at the Vanguard is exactly what you'd expect it to be: a solo album recorded over the course of a week of engagements at The Village Vanguard, perhaps the most venerated jazz performance space in New York (and, therefore, probably in the world). In the fall of 2005, Hersch played 12 sets over the course of six nights and recorded all of them with the intention of culling them down to a single disc; in the end, Hersch decided simply to release the final set in its entirety. It's difficult to convey the brilliance of these performances: his interpretations of standards like "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," "Memories of You," and "Doxy" manage somehow to evoke intensity and contemplation in equal measure. His originals, three of which are dedicated to guitarist Bill Frisell ("Down Home"), saxophonist Lee Konitz ("Lee's Dream"), and classical composer Robert Schumann ("Pastorale") find him frequently stretching out in a contrapuntal style, generally locking into a steady rhythmic state while spinning out multiple melodic lines simultaneously; his compositions often sound like the aural representation of a complex clockworks. While "Pastorale" is tender and reflective, "Lee's Dream" is harmonically advanced and features both charmingly sideways counterpoint and a melody that hints at Thelonious Monk's "Work." And then, toward the end, comes the album's finest and most inspired moment: that very tune, "Work," which Hersch uses in an almost pedagogical way. While many have noted the jaggedness and irregularity of Monk's compositions, Hersch shows off the grace and elegance of this one, and takes it away into uncharted waters. This is a once-in-a-decade album, the kind that will stay with you long after the final track fades out.

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