Ever the restless artist, pianist Fred Hersch wastes no time moving from one project to another. But he's termed this one "unintentional", having played with his "Pocket Orchestra" (in reality a quartet) only one other time, and that was the evening prior to these recordings at Jazz Standard in New York City. Stripping down the ensemble to barebones with no bassist, Hersch is joined by veteran drummer Richie Barshay, the excellent trumpeter Ralph Alessi, and Australian vocalist Jo Lawry. The music sports ethereal, wistful qualities at times, and in other instances, playful, prosaic, ethnic, and curious ones. Ever mindful of the deeper spirit of the heart, Hersch is consistently able to excavate deep emotions from the wellspring of timeless beauty, ancient traditions, and always the true spirit of modern jazz. "Stuttering" kicks off the set, and it's one of those irresistible pieces that commands your attention from the first note to the last, with its mixed meter navigation based in 3/4 time, unison piano, muted trumpet, and vocal lines, a daunting swing, the complex made simple, and adding a smidgen of funk. Hersch's famous "Song Without Words" is a samba with spiritual implications, Alessi's bright trumpet identifies the bluesy da-da song "Down Home," and an Afro-Cuban bounce tacked onto a New Orleans shuffle with Lawry and Hersch's quick, maximized staccato phrases enhances "Free Flying." Norma Winstone's lyrics are soulfully sung by Lawry in the innocent, breathless, light hearted way they were written on the waltz swing ballad "Invitation to the Dance" and the unrequited, sweet, Valentine's Day invitation "A Wish." Lawry sings and recites M.J. Salter's "what did you think?" poem; "Light Years," uses wordless scat on the fun and impish tune "Lee's Dream," one Bill Evans would enjoy; la-la's along during the more ECM like, Native American elements of "Child's Song," and hums in reserved, reverent repast aside Hersch for the Spanish tinged paean/prayer "Canzona." Each piece uniquely tells its own story, with Alessi's constantly inventive and listenable horn positively influencing the sound of Hersch's wise and wary piano stylings. Another successful project in a long line of them, it is a very fine example of how Hersch continually expands his horizons beyond standard fare and tradition, making his own history with every unique idea he is still capable of fathoming after all these years.
AllMusic Review by Michael G. Nastos