Fred Hersch and Norma Winstone: Songs & Lullabies (2003)
Pianist Fred Hersch has long been respected in the jazz community for his chops, lush harmonic sense, steady growth and productivity, and the ability to compose beautiful, lingering melodies. His recent Guggenheim fellowship finally recognizes him as a national cultural treasure.
Fred makes Herschian music - using whatever he chooses to best follow his muse - while his work is always jazz-inflected, it embraces classical forms as well. I recently saw him premiere his "24 Variations on a Bach Chorale" at Carnegie Hall and then perform his superb left- handed nocturne. The rest of the program was piano jazz, including some of the selections from Songs & Lullabies, just released on Sunnyside.
One of these may be the most beautiful song Hersch has written to date: originally called "Endless Stars," inspired by (and musically painting) a clear winter night in New Hampshire, his solo version nearly floated me right out of my seat. His trio also does the tune on their recent Live at the Village Vanguard album; on this one it's called "Stars," with lyrics by Norma Winstone that deepen and personalize its meaning.
Norma Winstone is an ideal lyricist for Hersch's lavish melodies. She creates intelligent, poetic, yet succinct statements about life and love and sings them soulfully and naturally, without affectation or schmaltz. Norma doesn't have a big voice, and some may object to the occasional thinness in her upper register, but she's pitch-perfect and her improvisations flow perfectly with Hersch's music. The superb vibraphonist Gary Burton also visits on three tracks, adding texture and light.
It's a very beautiful CD, romantic without being sappy, well-paced with up tunes and ballads, with generous piano solos on every track. Fans of Hersch's '80s classics "Heartsong" and "Sarabande" will find them enhanced by Winstone's sentiments. The witty highlight is "The Eighth Deadly Sin," a Monk-ish tune with dead-on lyrics about deadlines and procrastination.
To those who sniff that Fred Hersch's playing is too intellectual (in my experience, usually those who can't match his technique), I suggest that Hersch has never been more direct, open and emotional than on this CD. Whether passionate or tender, his playing is always thoughtful and consistently brilliant. Bravo on that Guggenheim, Fred. Now the rest of the country is more likely to experience what jazz has known for about 30 years.
Track Listing: Longing, Stars, A Wish, Lost in Another Time, Songs & Lullabies, Spirits, The Eighth Deadly Sin, Bird in the Rain, To Music, Song of Life, Invitation to the Dance. TT = 58:11
Personnel: Fred Hersch/piano, composer, producer; Norma Winstone/lyrics, vocals, producer; Gary Burton/ vibes