Live at the Village Vanguard
Palmetto PM 2088

Sienna Concert
Splasc (H) CD H 519.2

Two takes on the contemporary jazz piano trio recorded in concert provide an object lesson in how early participants and younger re-inventors approach this genre of music, and what they do to make it their own.

Surprisingly, after listening to these discs it would appear that the old-timer has a slight edge. Working with a couple of other veterans, Italian pianist Guido Manusardi who was around for the modern style’s first flowering, brings a swinging liveliness to his program of standards and highlights from his longtime repertoire.

Manusardi, who was born in Chiavenna in 1935, has worked all over Europe with local and American expatriate musicians, especially bassist Red Mitchell, with whom he recorded five CDs. His nearly seven-year sojourn in Rumania during the 1970s resulted in the first jazz pieces based on that country’s music. Despite this experimentation, he remains a swing/bop pianist, showing in this set, recorded at Sienna Jazz festival in Italy, that his playing is firmly rooted in the tradition of Red Garland, Wynton Kelley and Tommy Flanagan.

Twenty years younger, Cincinnati-born Fred Hersch has both Grammy nominations and extensive teaching experience in Boston and Manhattan to his credit. A stylist, whose personal pantheon obviously exalts Bill Evans, he’s performed with everyone from saxophone icons Joe Henderson and Stan Getz to boundary stretchers woodwind player Michael Moore and percussionist Gerry Hemingway, not to mention the New York String Quartet.

For some reason — perhaps it was being on the site of some of Evans’ most famous LPs — Hersch’s set, recorded last year at New York’s Village Vanguard seems to predominately made up of dreamy, introspection, at times almost leaden standards and originals. Paradoxically, his stylistic originality appears to work against him as well. Unlike Manusardi, who is an unabashed swinging mainstreamer, Hersch has to filter every tune through his original concept of pulse and attack. What results though sometimes robs familiar pieces of their originality. Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” and Wayne Shorter’s “Miyako/Black Nile” end up with a sound and feel little different than Cahn and Styne’s “Some Other Time” and the old Frank Sinatra/Bing Crosby warhorse “I’ll be seeing you”. LIVE is only nine minutes longer than SIENNA, but unrolls at such a languid pace that it easily seems twice the length.

There are highpoints of course. Hersch’s “ Swamp Thang” is uncharacteristically slinky, with a theme that references Louisiana rather than New York. As he goes through it the piano man indulges in some multi note embellishment, using his right hand to extend the off kilter beats, creating some menacing chords with his left hand and introducing bluesy riffs.

Following right afterwards is “Stuttering”, a loping andante piece which at times resembles the speech patterns of a stutterer. A foot tapper, it features the pianist emphasizing the melody where he wants to, sometimes appearing to be advancing different versions of the theme in either hand. As bassist Drew Gress and drummer Nasheet Waits seem to be moving along parallel lines, Hersch throws in a brisk, slip-sliding reprise of the theme at the end.

Other than that, Waits, who has recorded with pianist Andrew Hill among others, and Gress, who recorded a piano trio session with Italian keyboard man Luigi Martinale in 2001, seem under wraps.

Except for a late inning extended drum solo that is best not commented upon, Waits confines himself to the standard accompanist role of say, adding a Latin backbeat to Hersch’s slow moving “Endless Stars” and expected boppy cymbal accents. As for the bassist, whose experience includes outside work with reedmen like Marty Ehrlich, Tim Berne and Ellery Eskelin, he doesn’t seem to come up with anything Scott LaFaro wouldn’t have played on those famous Evans trio sessions of 1961. And is the pianist really quoting “Send in the Clowns” in the middle of his flowery “At the Close of the Day”?

When it comes the Monk piece, didn’t write like that, so adding a beginning that sounds like a baroque rondo, then after florid counterpoint and variations, finally introducing the theme sits strangely on the queasy ear. Self-consciously jazzy keyboard clips don’t really redeem matters either.

Certainly not the stylist or technician Hersch is, Manusardi also faced much poorer sound reproduction in Sienna in 2000. He also had to make allowances for drummer Gianni Cazzola. Although the stickman is five years younger than the pianist, who he first worked with in 1977, and played with advanced pianist Giorgio Gaslini’s band, as well as the expected boppers such as Chet Baker, Dexter Gordon and Johnny Griffin, Cazzola’s outpourings hint at the pre-modern. Given a chance on these tunes, he’ll introduce more bass drum pounding and cow bell accents than have been heard since the heyday of Gene Krupa. Unimpressive even on his solo on “Isola”, seasoned bassist Lucio Terzano, who has recorded with saxist Mauro Negri and pianist Luigi Bonafede pretty much stays out of the other musicians’ way.

Manusardi himself seems particularly enervated here though, even turning “Over The Rainbow” into a double-time, two-handed swinger, complete with shimmering glissandos and a touch of stride piano. Perhaps the reason for his animation was that he had recorded four of the eight tunes here a mere 12 days before in a Hollywood, Calif. nightspot with drummer Billy Higgins.

As it is, the 67-minute program is remarkably consistent, with only a tincture of exotic — probably Rumanian — spice peaking through the bop in the romantic “Tandarica”.

Every tune seems to be a finger snapper, with pile-driver chords spilling from the piano and the drummer doing his best to sound like Art Taylor circa 1960. On the pianist’s “The Woodpecker”, also recorded with Higgins, Manusardi comes on like mid-period Wynton Kelly, swinging and hammering the octaves; Terzano produces a chiming bass line; and Cazzola produces the sort of drum break you would have expected from Ed Thigpen with Oscar Peterson. “Blue Bag” is (no surprise), a powerful, rhythmic blues tune, which finds the keyboardist quoting “Miles Ahead” in the middle of his romp. While “Dany Tune”, the longest — and final — track at almost 11 minutes, is all tension and release. With the final few minutes given over to a brisk exchange of fours from the drummer and the pianist, Manusardi suggests Evans at the top of his form. But be aware that it’s the vital, swinging Evans of KIND OF BLUE.

Hersch’s legion of fans may find much more to like about his session. And it certainly defines his trio work as much as Evans’ Vanguard-recorded WALTZ FOR DEBBY characterized his. But the literal graybeards in Sienna have the handle on swinging excitement.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Live: 1. Bemsha Swing 2. At the Close of the Day 3. Phantom of the Bopera 4. Endless Stars 5. Swamp Thang 6. Stuttering 7. Some Other Time 8. Days Gone By 9. Miyako/Black Nile 10. I’ll be seeing you

Personnel: Live: Fred Hersch (piano); Drew Gress (bass); Nasheet Waits (drums)

Track Listing: Siena: 1. Snow Man 2. Country Dance 4. Tandarica 5. Over The Rainbow 6. Isola 7. Blue Bag 8. Dany Tune

Personnel: Siena: Guido Manusardi (piano); Lucio Terzano (bass); Gianni Cazzola (drums)