Vanguard Vibrations: Right There In It

At least three indicators can tell you when a band is operating on a high level: Each musician propels the time with equal commitment and groove; the notes from one instrument begin to blend into the next, as the ensemble becomes less a collection of players and more a single sonic ecosystem; and flickering smiles are exchanged on the bandstand during unexpected moments of glee.

The Fred Hersch Trio & special guest Miguel Zenón proved to be just such an ensemble Friday night at the Village Vanguard in New York. For those of you eager to see them, call ahead — the place was packed and only two nights of their run remain.

An early highlight was an otherworldly ending to Hersch’s timeless “Sarabande,” in which ethereal sounds from Zenon’s horn melded and seemed to enter the piano strings as Fred tremelo’d octaves in the upper register. Similarly, on Fred’s tribute to Sonny Rollins, the aptly titled “Newkalypso,”—which sounded on this night as though it were written as a feature for Zenon—included some telepathic merging of sounds between the pianist and saxophonist. As Fred remarked to me afterward, Zenon “is right there in it.” That is to say, he’s not a soloist floating over a rhythm section, but in the center of the rhythmic dance unfolding between the musicians, propelling the music forward as much as any rhythm section player.

Speaking of rhythm, I was particularly struck by the exuberance of drummer Eric McPherson’s playing from the get-go. I heard many more shades of Art Blakey and Tony Williams, Clyde Stubblefield and Questlove, than I’d ever heard in McPherson’s playing, and yet he remains an individual iconoclast behind the drums, orchestrating and bringing out unexpected textures from the kit. Typically more reserved in the trio format, tonight he dropped bombs and made thunderous entrances when the spirit moved him. He also used actual drum sticks on many pieces. Typically, with the trio, he chooses a variety of brushes and other implements to get the full range of lower-decibel dynamics required to play Hersch’s music. As I mentioned to Fred, the sticks-to-brushes/broomsticks/hot rod ratio was strikingly different with Zenon’s fiery alto in the mix. But as Fred agreed, McPherson’s dynamics were utterly appropriate to the spirit and vibe of the evening. This music is FUN, and McPherson was having a good time. (So was this listener.)

Hersch is one of the world’s great pianists, to be sure, but he is perhaps most celebrated for his solo work. His solo rendition of Round Midnight (Fred makes a point of including music from Thelonious Monk in each set he performs) was astounding, and a fascinating study in colors from the low end of the piano, spontaneous reharmonization, and counterpoint. I couldn’t help but be reminded that the last few times I’ve heard him, Fred appears to be exploring the low register of the piano in ways I don’t necessarily associate with his sound. It is profoundly inspiring to hear a mentor and hero like Fred continue to grow and expand his artistic palette even after decades of albums, accolades, and achievements.

A sultry tempo emerged from Round Midnight, and the band launched into a loose, greasy rendition of Monk’s Blue Monk, where the rhythm team and Zenon rejoined the fray. Aside from a nearly free-form solo on this piece, tonight John Hebert’s bass playing felt perhaps a little more grounded and foundational than it often does with the trio, and appropriately so — with the winds blowing in a multitude of directions, the ensemble noticeably morphed with the addition of Zenon, someone had to stay closer to earth during the soloists’ skyward excursions. Nonetheless, at many points during the set I heard a fresh rhythmic figure unfold from Hebert’s bass, only to hear Hersch and Zenón respond with in-kind musical answers in their respective solos.

One wild card was Miguel Zenon’s introduction of the Aca Seca Trio’s lovely “Vidala sin voz,” a folclóric-sounding melody from Argentina with an unusual form, which the quartet played with reverent lyricism. The flights of fancy were most pronounced, however, on Hersch’s “Blackwing Palomino” (written for his favorite variety of pencil), the aforementioned Newkalypso, and perhaps the set-opener, Hersch’s dynamic arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love,” during which EMac’s electric propulsion of polyrhythms brought to mind Tony Williams’ prophetic work with the Miles Davis Quintet in the 1960s.

The audience was ecstatic by the end of the night, and Fred guided us back to earth with a poetic arrangement of Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes,” recorded on his 2017 solo album “Open Book.” I was thrilled to have witnessed one of my favorite saxophonists join one of my favorite piano trios in an thrillingly organic and spontaneous performance.

Set list:

Easy to love
Blackwing Palomino
Vidala sin voz
Round Midnight
Blue Monk
Encore: And So It Goes

**Full disclosure: Fred Hersch is a long time teacher and mentor of mine.