Great Piano Trios: Fred Hersch and Brad Mehldau

Two of the great jazz pianists on the scene have just released two of their greatest trio albums: Fred Hersch, Sunday Night at the Vanguard (Palmetto); and Brad Mehldau, Blues and Ballads (Nonesuch).

Both musicians come out of a traditional, though modern, jazz vibe. Unlike some of their peers, such as Jason Moran and Vijay Iyer, who seek to redefine the piano trio in myriad ways, Hersch and Mehldau explore new pathways in song-forms, as the titles of these albums suggest—Mehldau underlining the core ingredients of jazz standards, Hersch nodding to Bill Evans' classic 1961 Sunday at the Village Vanguard.

But their explorations of those forms are immersive, distinct, riveting, and—when the players want them to be—gorgeous.

Mehldau's album is particularly welcome, coming after 10 Years Solo Live, a 10-LP (or 4-CD) boxed set of live solo recordings, which I found as dull and lugubrious as the many dim, grim-faced, portrait-photos in the set's booklet. (I must admit: I listened to only a few of the discs, then returned the boxes to the publicist at Nonesuch.) It may be that Mehldau needs his longtime trio-mates—Larry Grenadier on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums—for ballast, sustenance, and swing. In any case, once he has them, the results—in his own playing and the ensemble interplay—is wondrous, seriously good-natured. And the title is more than merely descriptive: Mehldau, once again, and more than usual, proves himself the bluesiest of balladeers and the most lyrically balladic of blues artists.

Hersch has been on a roll in the six (now seven) albums—solos, trios, and duets—that he's made since emerging from a coma, in 2008, and re-honing his reflexes, and this album, his 50th as a leader or co-leader, ranks high among them all. His sparkling tone, harmonic inventiveness, dynamic control, and mastery of rubato are striking from the opening seconds of the first track, appropriately Richard Rodgers' "A Cockeyed Optimist," and never let up. The album consists of an entire set, in the order the songs were actually played, at the Village Vanguard the night of March 27, 2016. (I'd planned to go to that set but couldn't, for reasons I don't remember. I regard this album as a sort of redemption.)

The two albums share a sensibility in repertoire, though Mehldau's seven tracks delve more into standards: Cole Porter's "I Concentrate on You," Buddy Johnson's "Since I Fell for You," Charlie Parker's "Cheryl," and Jack Strachey & Holt Marvell's "These Foolish Things" (which Sinatra, Fitzgerald, and many others turned into a hit). Half of Hersch's 10 tracks are originals, though the others include Jimmy Rowles' "The Peacocks" and Monk's "We See." Both pianists improvise on a Beatles song—Mehldau does "And I Love Her," Hersch "For No One"—both at slow, almost melancholy tempos.

If the two albums sound similar, despite their different provenances (Hersch's taped live at the Vanguard, Mehldau's laid down at Avatar Studios), it may be because both were recorded and mixed by James Farber. Mastering was by Greg Calbi (for Mehldau) and Mark Wilder (for Hersch). All three artists-in-the-booth are at the top of their game, and both albums sound superb: the piano both warm and percussive, each key precisely hit and airily reverberant; the drumkit sizzling, especially the cymbals; the bass plucky and woody.

Allen Fant's picture

Thanks! for sharing- FK.
I like both of these artists and a sizzling drumkit- I am there!

Bill Leebens's picture

A lot of jazz pianists are way too busy for me; these two respect melodies, silence, and the listener. I enjoy them both. A lot.

jim davis's picture

B&B has occupied the CD player's tray more than most others recently. Superb! FH's work has been so hit or miss IMO (more miss, sadly). Hoping that his Vanguard disc is worth acquiring.