Fred Hersch and his bandmates interpret 11 standards on their fine album, Dancing in the Dark. Hersch is a lyrical player, who possesses a light touch and a sophisticated sense of style. His playing is unmistakably influenced by Bill Evans, and his trio work is marked by some of the characteristics that made Evans' best trios so memorable: cohesive, "whole is greater than the sum of its parts," musical communication. Drew Gress (bass) and Tom Rainey (drums) are outstanding throughout these 70 minutes and their efforts become even more apparent with repeated listenings. The best tracks on Dancing in the Dark happen to also be the least well known; the brisk "So In Love," the delicate, solo vehicle "If I Should Lose You," the soft, orchestral "Wild Is The Wind," and the bright, swinging title piece. Though he occasionally takes a dissonant, avant garde approach ("Out Of Nowhere"), it is clearly not his most effective style. Hersch is at is best when he "sings" on the piano and his ballad playing is consistently first rate. This is a quality album, branded by excellent trio playing and tasteful interpretations of the standard repertoire.
- Brian Bartolini (All Music Guide)
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Standards. Fundamentals. Basics. They're what you have to know, what you have to be able to do, if you want to be good at something. Calculus begins with 2+2. It's the same in sports, the same in the arts. If you want to be a painter, learn the craft.
Paint a landscape. Paint some flowers. And if you're good enough, craft becomes art-like van Gogh's flowers. It's no different in jazz. If you want to be a player, play some songs. Rodgers. Porter. Kern. I mean, "the fundamental things apply..." Standards are what you have to know if you want to work or even just to jam-and especially if you want to create your own songs. Standards are what the Fred Hersch Trio is playing on Dancing in the Dark. In Fred's words, "Forward Motion, the last Chesky album, was all original compositions and the last few records I've done have been fairly arranged. I wanted to make a record that was about playing, about the solos and the ensemble of the trio, so I made a list of tunes I felt might be fun to play. I've recorded a lot of standards on a lot of records, but these are tunes I hadn't recorded before, tunes that I felt close to....They're not jazz compositions we think of as standards but all tunes with lyrics. I didn't play any tune that I didn't know the lyric. That was really important to me."
It's only natural that Fred Hersch appreciates great songs after all the years he's worked with the likes of Art Farmer, Joe Henderson, Stan Getz, and Toots Thielemans, great players of great songs. "I learned from all those guys that whatever tune you're playing, respect the tune. If it's worth playing, it's worth really knowing the tune and the lyrics. I try to think when I play a melody, if I were a singer, how would I phrase it? I've learned especially on ballads that it's very important to relate to the melody in your solo and that playing ballads is not about double or triple-timing and playing what Jaki Byard calls 'waterfalls and rigolettos'- waterfalls going down and rigolettos going up, a lot of pyrotechnics. Ballad playing is really about expressing the feeling of a song, making phrases that are poignant and have some lasting emotional value. Toots or Stan knew how to build a ballad in an emotional and musical way so there's some sort of pay-off. I've also learned from singers I've worked with, like Janis Siegel and Sylvia Syms, and from listening to singers and horn players....Ballad playing is hard on the piano because it's hard to get a piano to sing. Probably more than any other aspect of my playing, I've worked on my touch and my sound so that I hope I'm able to sing the tune and not just play notes."
What's most important when playing standards is re-creating the songs with something unique of yourself. "I don't subscribe to the notion that you lay your stuff all over a tune. It's really got to come from the tune. Certain tunes lend themselves more to my style. I pick certain tunes because I'm able to express myself, whether it's the harmony or the rhythm, the phrase structure, the mood, the lyric, and I pick players who are capable of hearing my way of playing and are able to go with me....I feel Tom's and Drew's and my sound are very compatible. I love that Drew is very comfortable with phrasing over the bar-which is my meat and potatoes. They're both very quick and have incredible dynamic range. Some players are only into playing original compositions and look down on playing standards, but Tom and Drew enjoy the challenge."
Fred's challenge was to be totally open with the songs. "I had some very basic arrangements or a groove or a modulation or just an idea of how I wanted to do the songs, and we just allowed the music to happen in the studio. There were times when I'd look over at Drew and motion him to lay out while I played a little duet with Tom or all of a sudden I'd want to go out of tempo. And on each time I tried to have some angle or different texture, not in an overly arranged way but so there was some of what Toots used to refer to as a signature. I've been known to arrange stuff, but on these tunes I wanted to feel free to play melodically and to make sure the level of chamber music this trio is capable of came through without being buried in pieces of paper." They recorded the songs not in take after take but as if playing a gig, playing sets of 3-4 songs over several sessions, so that each performance was that much more spontaneous. They aspired to the interplay of Fred's favorite trios-Bill Evans with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian, Ahmad Jamal with Israel Crosby and Vernel Fournier, the trios of Keith Jarrett and Paul Bley. "These are the trios where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I love in Ahmad's trio the perfect balance between being arranged and being spontaneous, but conceptually and rhythmically I'd say we owe most to the Bill Evans school of trio playing."
That's especially evident on the more impressionistic moments when Fred's piano and Drew's bass play in and around each other and the melody and when Tom's drums float the time while nonetheless swinging. But all the songs have Fred's touch and resonate in Fred's life. "I have a huge collection of songbooks and rather than using Bill's or Ahmad's or Miles' changes, I go back to the original sheet music. That's how I came up with 'Dancing In The Dark.' I like it because it's sort of how I feel when I play. I close my eyes and that's the feeling I have when moving in motion with other people. Janis Siegel told me that Jon Hendricks is convinced that the lyrics to that song are very metaphysical, about the afterlife and reincarnation. I'm not sure if that's true but I tried to make it as otherworldly as possible....'Wild Is The Wind' is a song I've done with different singers over the years-it's a cool ballad that doesn't get' played much....'My Funny Valentine' we play with a different feeling in a different key than normal. I'm always amazed by Richard Rodgers' tunes. This guy could get more out of a scale than almost any other writer. I played around with the changes of 'So In Love,' too....On 'Secret Love' I don't use any chords. We did that completely linearly. That's a tune I used to play when I was starting out in Cincinnati....) don't think 'Bye Bye Blackbird' has the most wonderful lyric but there's a lyricism about the tune and it has some personal meaning for me. One of the records that really got me determined to be a jazz musician was Friday and Saturday Night at the Blackhawk, the way Miles and Wynton Kelly played together, and 'Bye Bye Blackbird' was on there... .1 think of Bird when we do 'Out of Nowhere.' I think of Chet Baker when we do 'I Fall In Love Too Easily.' Miles did that also but we do it as a waltz. 'All The Things You Are' is one of those tunes like, Yeah, let's do that I...I like playing If I Should Lose You' in that contrapuntal way. I've been doing that in concert recently....'For All We Know' is another song that has personal significance for me. I see it as a metaphor for the uncertainty of life in the 90's with things going on in the world and with people's health."
And just for the record, "Dancing In The Dark" is not by Bruce Springsteen but by composer Arthur Schwartz and lyricist Howard Dietz - and on the title song, as on this whole album, the Fred Hersch Trio lives up to standards.
- Michael Bourne (Downbeat and WBGO-FM, Newark)