Pianist Fred Hersch, who needs no introduction to most well-informed jazz enthusiasts, is by and large known as a leader of trios and other small groups. Begin Again displays another side of Hersch's appreciable talents: nine of his handsome compositions, astutely recast by six-time Grammy Award winner Vince Mendoza and impressively performed by Germany's superb WDR Big Band.
The diaphanous title song, which opens the album, is the only composition not previously recorded by Hersch. Any lingering doubts that Hersch can write a lovely and enchanting theme are quickly swept away by "Song Without Words #2: Ballad," which follows. Alto saxophonist Johan Horlen amplifies its melodic charm, as he does on "Begin Again." Hersch wrote "Havana," which only indirectly addresses its Cuban lineage, for his 2011 trio album Alive at the Vanguard (Palmetto). Mendoza's clever chart lends it the proper intensity to complement robust solos by Hersch and tenor Paul Heller. While most of Hersch's music is not thematic, an exception is the grim and cheerless "Out Someplace," which imagines the horrendous final hours of Matthew Shepard, a gay man who was brutally murdered in Wyoming in 1998.
The sunshine quickly returns on "Pastorale," a light-hearted homage to Robert Schumann's "Kinderszenen" (Scenes from Childhood) on which Hersch's genial piano is front and center. The mid-tempo "Rain Waltz," which dates to the 1980s, is similarly engaging, as are the solos by trumpeter Ruud Breuls and alto Karolina Strassmayer. Hersch, trombonist Ludwig Nuss and trumpeter Andy Haderer share solo honors on "The Big Easy," a shuffling, blues-slanted theme that leads to drummer Hans Dekker's galvanic showpiece, "Forward Motion" (with other solos by Breuls, Heller and trombonist Andy Hunter). Hersch is at his bright and lyrical best on "The Orb," a seductive melody that closes the album on a charming note.
Begin Again offers proof, if any were needed, that Hersch is as loose and comfortable in a big-band setting as he is leading a trio, and that he is a composer whose themes blend easily into any format.