In Amsterdam: Live At The Bimhuis
This live release by Fred Hersch is a rare creature: a solo piano recital that is never at a loss for lyrical and melodic ideas. The solo format exposes all of the musician's habits, pet themes and favored tones to our virgin ears without the benefit of the commanding physical pulse of a rhythm section. It's just Hersch and his thoughts. Thankfully, he's a smart and generous guy, tackling standards and original compositions with equal subtlety and invention.
Hersch pushes gently undulating waves of sound, glancing off the melody into plaintive reveries whose beauty dissolves before they can be handled, becoming precious in the process. Even the more physical tunes, like his version of Monk's "Evidence, operate in waves, but this time in phrases of knotty complexity. The sense of forward motion is never lost amidst the abstracted stabbings of the tune. It's remarkable how complete his artistic vision iseverything is shaped to glide with aerodynamic ease.
This is the second fine solo piano piece to be released in the past few months, along with Matthew Shipp's One, which offers a distinctly different approach to the instrument. Hersch rolls while Shipp roils, his studio pieces imploding every rhythm, remaking the wheel each bar with a dizzying rumble of contradictions, the right hand continually dismantling the left. It's the childish joy in anarchy given a mature structure. The bond between the two musicians, though, is a ceaseless search for ideas in the midst of a tune: Shipp folds it in on itself, while Hersch expands it.
For example, Hersch's take on Jobim's "O Grande Amor begins with a simple, hesitating melody, repeating the lilting riff with meditative insistence, allowing its relaxed bounce to lend the feel of a pastoral. Then the pianist adds different colors, chiming notes and calm dissonances, enriching the tune but not impeding its progress. Then the tempo speeds briefly and there's a brief left-hand rumble, and once again we're on our way amidst the trees for a bit to get our bearings. Then up pops a fork in the road and Hersch dissolves the melody into gorgeous right hand runs that culminate in an intensely swinging chorus. He ends it here, on top, as he should, with more than a pretty phrase.
Live At The Bimhuis offers gems aplenty: Hersch's achingly fragile take on "The Nearness of You, soft-shoeing around the melody for eight minutes; the grand melodrama of "The Peacocks ; the wistful balladry of "At The Close of the Day ; and the traditional love song earnestness of "Valentine, which is traditional in the noblest of ways, in love with love.
The lightest and most smile-inducing piece on the album is Hersch's interpretation of Jimmy McHugh's 1933 Broadway melody from Clowns in Clover, "Don't Blame Me. Starting with an airy, loose-limbed iteration of the melody, followed by some provisional elaborations that include a minimalist plinking breakdown with his right hand, he slowly nails down the rhythm with his leftand it takes off. The melody locks in and Hersch swings amidst various swirling runs that reach for those showbiz stars (note: he grabs them). One can only hope some enterprising producer recorded Hersch's recent run at the Village Vanguardthis relentless artistic percolation needs to be documented thoroughly.
Personnel: Fred Hersch: piano.