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Take Five: Fred Hersch Opens Up, Camille Thurman Looks Back, and Tim Berne Does the Stingray Shuffle

Martin Ziman
Fred Hersch

Fred Hersch, “Eronel”

Introspection has never been a hurdle for Fred Hersch, but the pianist is reaching new depths in that area lately. His glowing and revelatory memoir, Good Things Happen Slowly, publishes this week. And his gorgeous companion album, a solo effort bearing the perfect title {open book}, is just out on Palmetto.

The album, recorded in concert last year, rings with searching candor. The pianism is polished but unguarded, often with an exploratory tilt; one track, “Through the Forest,” is a free-associative spelunk into the subconscious, sprawling almost to 20 minutes. But you can hear just as much risk and reward in Hersch’s delivery of “Eronel,” one of the few Thelonious Monk compositions he’d never recorded before.

This Friday and Saturday, as part of the kickoff for the 30th-anniversary season of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Hersch will revisit Leaves of Grass, his song cycle inspired by the iconic Walt Whitman poem. Those concerts, in the Appel Room, will feature Kate McGarry and Kurt Elling on vocals, alongside expert colorists like cellist Jody Redhage, tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby and drummer John Hollenbeck.

Tom Rainey Obbligato, “What Is This Thing Called Love?”

There was a time when you might have expected to hear drummer Tom Rainey playing jazz standards — during the 1990s, say, when he was working steadily with Hersch. These days, Rainey is far likelier to be venturing out into the unknown, both as a collaborator and a bandleader. He splits the difference on his new album, Float Upstream, giving a familiar repertoire some unfamiliar contours.

The band features Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Ingrid Laubrock on tenor saxophone, Kris Davis on piano and Drew Gress — Rainey’s old partner in that Hersch trio — on bass. Float Upstream is their second album on the Intakt label, and it continues a pattern of upended expectations. Consider “What Is This Thing Called Love?” — the Cole Porter standard turned perennial jam-session warhorse, a song you might expect to go a certain way. Following Rainey’s rhythmic lead, the band turns it into a pugnacious challenge, moving fast and light, taking slangy liberties with harmony. It’s as if they mean to remind you of the uncertainty implicit in the song’s lyrics — or, at the very least, the fact that its title terminates in a question mark.

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis Featuring Dick Hyman, “Jingles”

We mentioned that Jazz at Lincoln Center kicks off its new season this week. By way of its in-house record label, Blue Engine, the organization is also calling back to last year’s season opener, a century-wide survey of jazz piano styles called Handful of Keys. Naturally any such effort had to include Dick Hyman.


Hyman, who became an NEA Jazz Master this year at 90, has a bulletproof track record with sweeping piano histories. (Look no further than Dick Hyman's Century of Jazz Piano, released on 5 CDs and a DVD.) So it only feels fitting that Handful of Keys opens with his suave performance of “Jingles,” which James P. Johnson introduced, via the Clarence Williams Orchestra, in 1927 — the year of Hyman’s birth.

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, “Stingray Shuffle”

By now, admirers of saxophonist and composer Tim Berne are well acquainted with Snakeoil. A volatile yet finely calibrated unit with Oscar Noriega on clarinets, Matt Mitchell on piano and Ches Smith on drums and percussion, it has been Berne’s primary outlet in the last decade: Incidentals is its fourth album on ECM. (Its fifth overall, if you count a rampaging live release on Berne’s Screwgun label.)

Tim Berne's Snakeoil, left to right: Ryan Ferreira, Matt Mitchell, Tim Berne, Ches Smith, Oscar Noriega
“Stingray Shuffle,” by Tim Berne’s Snakeoil

For the last few years, the band has had a fifth member, guitarist Ryan Ferreira, whose contribution is a matter of both color and line. (Also, squall.) The album’s most succinct track is “Stingray Shuffle,” which begins in hallucinatory counterpoint — Ferreira leading one inquiry and Berne the other, with Mitchell reaching across the divide. Listen to how the ensemble gradually brings the simmer to a boil, with Berne’s calmly centered alto sauntering forth against a growing disquiet. (The final two minutes, following a stop-start piano solo, are pure insanity.)

Snakeoil’s cross-country tour kicks off on Wednesday at the Jazz Standard in New York. For more dates, see Berne’s website.

Camille Thurman, “Sassy’s Blues”

Camille Thurman is a gifted young tenor saxophonist who has also made substantial inroads as a singer; she was a runner-up in the 2013 Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition. This Wednesday and Thursday she’ll present a tribute to Vaughan, along with the full-time jazz vocalist Charenee Wade, at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. The tribute calls to mind “Sassy’s Blues,” a track from Thurman’s recent album Inside the Moment. Composed by Quincy Jones, Thad Jones and Vaughan herself, and first recorded (at a more relaxed tempo) in the early 1960s, it’s a tune that lives and dies by the scatting — an order that Thurman is well suited to fill.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.