Pianist Fred Hersch and drummer Paul Motian have rarely crossed paths in their long musical careers, having only played together once in the mid-1980s for a week, but share some key musical associations. First is with pianist Bill Evans. Motian was the drummer in Evans's groundbreaking trio in the late 1950s and early '60s and Hersch is one of the many current pianists expanding on Evans's concepts of harmony and lyricism. The two are also quite fond of the music of the pianist Thelonious Monk, having both recorded albums exploring Monks oeuvre. With these connections and their reputations as modern masters preceding them, Hersch and Motian's performance with bassist Drew Gress at the Village Vanguard this week was highly anticipated, as they played to packed houses each night.
While Hersch and Motian's pairing produced many provocative moments, their unique and unapologetic musical personalities did not flatter some of the music during Saturday's set. While Hersch is the epitome of elegance, with an immaculately deft touch and a predilection for expansive lines over percussive attack, Motian is more of musical eight-hundred pound gorilla, with bright sizzle cymbals and jocular accents that cut through even the largest bands. Hersch's own compositions suffered most from this contrast. On "Whirl", Hersch's dedication to the ballet dancer Suzanne Farrell, the feeling of dance in Hersch's loping arpeggiated vamp turned to one of clumsiness when Motian dug into his ride cymbal.
But the magical sparks that one expects from a collaboration of this caliber did fly when the two reached for common musical ground. Ornette Coleman's "Forerunner" featured some ecstatic and playful trading among the trio, from Hersch's nearly baroque counterpoint to Motian's unexpected-but-impeccably-placed accents to Gress's parallel tri-tone double stops. The group followed with a pleasantly understated reading of "I'll be Seeing You," with Motian's brushed cymbals simmering under Hersch's solo. The set's seemingly inevitable closer, Monk's "In Walked Bud", was the night's high point, rife with Monk-ish rhythmic and melodic unpredictability while never sounding like a traditionalist rehash.
While Hersch and Motian's performance illustrated the distinctiveness of their respective styles, it also proved that their rich colors are too bold to mix well. In the end, the best place to hear Motian's drumming is with one of his own idiosyncratically-instrumentated ensembles, while Hersch's is best appreciated when alone on stage, such as during his encore performance of his tune, "Valentine".