DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Pianist Fred Hersch often works in small settings as a piano soloist or in duo with a singer or other instrumentalist or with his long-running trio. Hersch's latest album teams him with Germany's WDR Big Band. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Hersch's intimate music scales up nicely.
(SOUNDBITE OF FRED HERSCH, WDR BIG BAND AND VINCE MENDOZA'S "RAIN WALTZ")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Pianist Fred Hersch is such a subtle interpreter of jazz and pop standards, you could overlook the fetching tunes he writes. The album "Begin Again" marks the first release of Hersch playing his compositions with a big band, specifically German radio's WDR Big Band. Their arranger and conductor in residence, Vince Mendoza, makes a specialty of guest showcases like this. They're a familiar assignment for such European radio bands who do not phone it in.
(SOUNDBITE OF FRED HERSCH, WDR BIG BAND AND VINCE MENDOZA'S "FORWARD MOTION")
WHITEHEAD: Fred Hersch's "Forward Motion," originally for quintet - arranger Vince Mendoza has been working with the WDR Big Band a while and can make them purr and pop, and he brings out all their colors. Jazz big band language is often about dialogues between horn sections or between soloist and the band.
(SOUNDBITE OF FRED HERSCH, WDR BIG BAND AND VINCE MENDOZA'S "BEGIN AGAIN")
WHITEHEAD: That can get a little tricky sometimes, balancing the unequal forces of band and soloist, the many against the one. On Fred Hersch's tune "Havana," arranger Mendoza slowly pulls back the orchestral curtain to leave the soloist exposed and nicely set up.
(SOUNDBITE OF FRED HERSCH, WDR BIG BAND AND VINCE MENDOZA'S "HAVANA")
WHITEHEAD: Fred Hersch with bassist John Goldsby and drummer Hans Dekker of the WDR Big Band. Vince Mendoza's orchestrations often have a quietly majestic quality they share with some other modern big band music. But a setting of Hersch's "Out Somewhere" (ph), in memory of murder victim Matthew Shepard, is appropriately dark, recalling Charles Mingus's stormy complexity and blues-tinged brooding.
(SOUNDBITE OF FRED HERSCH, WDR BIG BAND AND VINCE MENDOZA'S "OUT SOMEPLACE")
WHITEHEAD: Cologne's WDR Big Band is typical of a few top-flight European radio orchestras. These musicians are expert readers and blenders and adept interpreters of a wide range of hard and easy modern music. The soloists are not always so distinctive, but they're always fluent and often think compositionally, hearing their solo line as part of the overall musical fabric. Honors here go to trombonist Ludwig Nuss for his woozy wah-wah solo on "The Big Easy." It's a good example of how everyone on the album "Begin Again" gets on composer Fred Hersch's wavelength and amplifies his message.
(SOUNDBITE OF FRED HERSCH, WDR BIG BAND AND VINCE MENDOZA'S "THE BIG EASY")
DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and The Audio Beat. He reviewed "Begin Again" by pianist Fred Hersch with the WDR Big Band. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the comedy "Brittany Runs A Marathon" about a hard-partying woman who signs up for the New York City Marathon. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEASTIE BOYS SONG, "NAMASTE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.