The Fred Hersch Trio: "Kind of Blue" Turns 50 at the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia
“ Fred Hersch has carved out a niche for himself as one of the most successful, resilient, and disciplined jazz pianists of the current era. ”
December 8, 2008
The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts features an ongoing series called "Jazz Up Close" in the Perelman Theater. Its coordinator, Danilo Perez, has arranged a series of outstanding concerts featuring top musicians performing in various jazz idioms, with post-intermission conversations about the particular genre embodied in that performance. Several events in this multi-year ongoing series were most enjoyable, and this one was no exception. Honoring and embodying the essence of Miles Davis' classic album, Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959), The Fred Hersch Trio performed pieces from the album, as well as a good mixture of tunes by Hersch, Monk, and other jazz greats, beautifully capturing the leanness and modal playing which Davis, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb brought to that best-selling recording that transformed the jazz idiom.
Hersch has carved out a niche for himself as one of the most successful, resilient, and disciplined jazz pianists of the current era. While courageously battling AIDS for many years and being an active spokesperson for its victims, Hersch has remarkably produced a lasting legacy of performances, recordings, and compositions that represent the highest level of musical achievementworks unrivaled in their beauty, imagination, and complexity. His composition Leaves of Grass (based on Walt Whitman's poetry), for small instrumental group and two vocalists, is a classic. His recent trio CD, Night and the Music is lustrous, and the somewhat earlier release, Fred Hersch in Amsterdam: Live at the Bimhuis, bespeaks a clarity and musical genius of the highest order of piano solo playing. These supreme qualities were sustained throughout the current performance.
Hersch wisely did not try to re-create elements of Kind of Blue. Instead, he honored it by being true to its form and spirit. Pieces like "So What" and "Freddy the Freeloader" were, of course, on that 1959 album that has acquired a reputation as the most popular if not most artistically admired recording of its kind. But Hersch added other tunes, such as his own "Evanescence" dedicated to Bill Evans, Evans' classic and perennially programmed "Nardis," Jimmy Rowles' "The Peacocks," and Monk's "Work," all of which allowed the trio to groove, while remaining faithful to that "certain something," that rare quality which made Kind of Blue unique. That intangible "something" might be thought of as a combination of spontaneity, leanness of expression, modal melodic lines, and a "democracy" which gave each player an equal place and space for improvising, each one manifesting his own style. Similarly, each member of the Hersch trio showed himself to be an improvisational "composer" of the highest order. Not only did the precision and complexity of bassist Joe Martin's and drummer Nasheet Waits' playing match the mastery of Hersch, but all three borrowed ideas and motifs from each other and interacted brilliantly. This was exceptional playing, precise, lively, rhythmically "on the money," and at times going out into that stratosphere which amazes and thrills the listener.
During the post-program discussion, which was hosted by Kimmel VP of Programming, Mervon Mehta, himself from an outstanding musical family and an avid jazz fan, each member of the trio reflected on his respective Kind of Blue double: Hersch on Evans, Waits on Jimmy Cobb (an old associate), and Martin on Paul Chambers. Relevant to the current performance, Waits pointed out the way in which jazz musicians become close "family," allowing the performers on both the album and the current trio to "hang together" musically, and for the Hersch trio to borrow from the legacy of an album recorded fifty years ago (to be precise, the recording sessions were in March and April of 1959). Hersch acknowledged his debt to Evans and to Ahmad Jamal, noting the exceptionality of Evans' use of his left hand and how he created movement within a chord. Hersch's own interest in forms, limits, and sentiment is indebted in part to Evans' similar passions. Added Hersch, "The great players are all storytellers. They take a simple structure and expand it." Martin credited the great Paul Chambers with being an impeccable player and a "widely influential modernist."
There were many fine moments and musical nuances in the two sets of their performance, but what truly made the Hersch Trio stand out was its exceptional sonority and precision, reminiscent in its "chamber music" quality of the Modern Jazz Quartet. These attributes were especially evident in the group's medley, or musical collage, of Hersch's "Still Here," dedicated to Wayne Shorter, and Shorter's own "Black Nile," on which Rasheed Waits' solo was one for the books. At the end, an AIDS-weathered Hersch acknowledged the standing ovation with a heart-rending solo of his own standard, "Valentine," which surely would have brought a grateful tear even to Bill Evans.