For more than two decades, the Grammy nominated pianist/composer/educator Fred Hersch has produced musical magic in a myriad of settings, from solo, duo, and trio, to small and large ensembles, that encompass the change and continuity of the jazz tradition. On Live at the Jazz Standard, his return to Sunnyside, where he released some seminal recordings in the eighties (and in 2003), Hersch unveils his Pocket Orchestra: a quicksilver assemblage of outstanding musicians: drummer Richie Barshay (Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Kenny Werner), trumpeter Ralph Alessi (Steve Coleman, Ravi Coltrane) and Australian vocalist Jo Lawry (Renee Rosnes, Lewis Nash) recorded at New York s Jazz Standard in May, 2008. Ralph has been my trumpeter of choice for many years now, Hersch says. He is a creative improviser and has a great sound and he reacts so quickly to what is going on. I heard Jo about a year and a half ago, and was really knocked out by her musicianship, her pure sound, her improvisational skills and her secure way with a lyric. I heard Richie play with some other pianists, and played some sessions with him and it just clicked. He has a great jazz feel as well as being a very personal and diverse percussionist.
You may notice that there is no bassist on this recording. The omission is intentional, and it defines the band s concept. I had done some playing/touring with a group of this same instrumentation in the UK with Kenny Wheeler, Norma Winstone and Paul Clarvis so I knew that the combination would work with the right people, Hersch says. In this context, I can be the orchestra and use the full range of the piano to shape the music. And it frees up my left hand not having a bassist. This group plays my compositions exclusively, and the instrumentation allows for a huge range of styles and vibes.
Indeed, the CD s ten tracks all written by the leader showcase the diverse styles and vibes that Hersch and company so easily and emphatically explore and expound on. Stuttering is a spirited, Monk-like, three-beat 32-bar number, contrasted by Child Song, Down Home, and Lee s Dream (based on You Stepped Out of a Dream ); three songs dedicated to Charlie Haden, Bill Frissell, and Lee Konitz, that are imbued with hues of bop, folk and the blues. Light Years is a beautiful art song about light and photography, featuring the poetry of Mary Jo Salter. Winstone contributed lyrics to A Wish [Valentine], the Wayne Shorter, infant-eyed, Invitation to the Dance [Sarabande], and the Latinesque Songs Without Words #4: Duet, a track Hersch describes as a duet between different parts of my right hand... The last two selections are new versions of songs originally released in 1986 and 2001. Canzona is another lilting and lyrical ballad written with the phenomenal Belgian guitarist/harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielemans in mind, and Free Flying soars with South American syncopations inspired by the great Brazilian multi-instrumentalist Egberto Gismonti.
With Fred Hersch's Pocket Orchestra, the ever-versatile and exploratory pianist leader has landed on a band name at once clever and ideally suitable to his designs, as an "orchestrator" for a compact, pocket-sized and disarmingly varied setting. While categorically a jazz group, and on an album recorded in the jazz cultural ambience of NYC's Jazz Standard, Hersch works up fresh conceptual math with this quartet, sans bass (except for Hersch's deftly roving left hand - a significant "player" in the band).
Hersch features, in many different ways, the often wordless vocal sound of impressive Australian singer Jo Lawry, trumpeter Ralph Alessi and drummer Richie Barshay. Together, the musicians empathetically venture into an assortment of stylistic corners laid out by Hersch's material, centered by the distinctive character of the group's instrumentation.
"Stuttering" kicks off the set with kinetic rhythmic energy and a hot, full-figured and very much two-handed piano solo, but things quickly shift into lyrical and chamber-esque mode with "Child's Song" and "Song Without Words #4: Duet." "Invitation to the Dance (Sarabande)" and "A Wish (Valentive)" are the album's songs with words - by Norma Winstone. Lawry handles it all with ease and elan, scatting flexibly on the Brazilian-ish "Free Flying." "Down Home" leans toward shades of barrelhouse, but with progressive touches, and the cool, boppish "Lee's Dream" affords Alessi a chance to stretch out in a quasi-bop style but with surprising twists. That balance/imbalance is key in Hersch's conceptual core for this wee yet intriguing orchestra.
- Josef Woodard --Jazz Times - August/September 2009
If "Pocket Orchestra" sounds like something hawked by Ron Popeil in a late-night infomercial, the impression isn't entirely inapt. While Fred Hersch's latest ensemble is far more elegant than a commercial spiel, it shares with many Ronco product the ability to conceal a stunning diversity of assets within a compact package. It may not slice and dice, but the base-less quartet is at turns intimate and expansive, playful and delicate, folksy and refined. Live At Jazz Standard captures a casual, sprightly performance, a seemingly shoes-off, collars-loosened affair - all the more remarkable in that this was only the group's second-ever gig together.
Hersch has long approached the musicians in his units as separate colors on a palette, and the absence of a bassist combined with the bright, pliant voice of Jo Lawry allows him to mix his elements onto a vibrant and multi-hued canvas. The Aussie-born singer adds a blissful airiness to "Child's Song" and an unselfconscious campfire singalong quality to the folksy "Down Home," then seems to lose herself in the transcendent humming of "Canzona," with Richie Barshay's atmosheric percussion here at its most evocative.
For the most part, Hersch employs Lawry's voice as a melodic instrument, though he has her recite and sing Mary Jo Salter's poem "Light Years" and revives two songs from his collboration with Norma Winstone.
Where Hersch dances with Lawry, he genially tussles with Ralph Alessi. The two are hardly strangers to one another, and their history is evident in their comfortable camaraderie. The opening rack, "Stuttering," one of Hersch's most playful tunes, finds the pair engaging like two brothers - teasing, one-upping, united with a shorthand ease. Hersch's penchant for gorgeous melodies and lyrical flights can be found throughout this disc, but where much of his work follows an introspective muse, this is a far more communal work suffused by an inner warmth.
- Shaun Brady --DownBeat - Oct. 2009