2008 was a horrendous year health-wise for jazz pianist, Fred Hersch who was diagnosed with HIV two decades ago and has AIDS. He's now on the rebound and has returned to performing. But before he took a downturn last year, he recorded live in New York with a new quartet. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it one of Fred Hersch's best and weirdest bands.

(Soundbite of song, "Stuttering")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: "Stuttering" by pianist Fred Hersch's Pocket Orchestra actually a quartet with voice, trumpet and drums. One way to shake up players in the jazz rhythm section is to take one away, the bass player in this case. You give up something but lopsided rhythm sections promote a looser kind of interplay. One good thing about this band is it often becomes a de-facto duo for Hersch and drummer Richie Barshay. He knows how to dig into a Brazilian march.

(Soundbite of song, "Stuttering")

WHITEHEAD: The lack of a bass player gives pianist Fred Hersch more leeway to make sudden turns without a collision. But that also means sometimes his left hand has to be the band's bass player. Listen to Hersch backup trumpeter Ralph Alessi who's got great chops but a weakness for playing a little too much.

(Soundbite of song, "Stuttering")

WHITEHEAD: On Fred Hersch's album "Live At Jazz Standard" everyone in his scale down Pocket Orchestra pitches in where they can. Jo Lawry is called on to sing a couple of romantic lyrics and to speak and sing her way through a Mary Joe Salter poem about memory and the play of light. But more often she is freed from words altogether. If piano can play the bass role, Lawry eases into Hersch's "Canzona" like a cello or viola.

(Soundbite of song, "Canzona")

WHITEHEAD: That's the kind of pretty melody Chick Corea gave singer Flora Purim in the 70s. Fred Hersch's Pocket Orchestra is a very modern band that can reach into the past. The heavier role for the Fred's left hand harks back to two-fisted early jazz piano players. When he uses Jo Lawry's voice like an extra horn beside Ralph Alessi's trumpet, the collective interplay recalls old New Orleans or Chicago bands who would sometimes record without the bass.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

WHITEHEAD: Jo Lawry sounds like she's been listening to jazz singer Sheila Jordan, a good role model for weaving through situations like that. Fred Hersch is rightly prides as an excellent ballad player who works well with singers. But he also has a playful exploratory side. He doesn't mind taking a tune way out for the pleasure of finding his way home. Hersch's Pocket Orchestra speaks to a few sides of his musical personality. It's a little band that does a lot.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

(Soundbite of applause)

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is currently on leave from teaching at the University of Kansas. And he's a jazz columnist for emusic.com. He reviewed Fred Hersch Pocket Orchestra "Live At The Jazz Standard" on the Sunny Side label. Coming up, David Edelstein on the new Sacha Baron Cohen film, "Bruno."

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