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Fred Hersch: Breath By Breath

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Fred Hersch: Breath By Breath
Why is Fred Hersch not sufficiently mentioned among the great jazz pianists? It could be a generational thing. At 66, Hersch is an eminent tweener, too old to qualify as the Hot New Thing and too young to be an Elder Statesman. He's in good company there with fellow sexagenarians Myra Melford, Satoko Fujii, Uri Caine, Jean-Michel Pilc and Matthew Shipp. It's true that Hersch's contemporaries Geri Allen, Mulgrew Miller and Kenny Kirkland have entered the pantheon (and Frank Kimbrough might be in the waiting room) but posthumously.

Let's not forget that we nearly lost Hersch, too. Yet here he is with another in a remarkable series of albums that, released early in the year, as Hersch's lately have been, don't get the boost of the recency bias in the yearend polls. Breath By Breath is likely to buck that trend. It checks all the usual Fred Hersch boxes: standout musicians, singular compositions, graceful and fully committed performances. What sets Breath by Breath apart is not that he uses a string quartet on record for the first time. It is instead the complete ease and mastery with which he integrates the strings into a very tight ensemble concept. This is gorgeous string writing; the passages for the quartet alone on "Know That You Are" and the Beethovenian intro to "Awakened Heart," are among the most rapturously beautiful music here.

There's another classical composer who looms large: J.S. Bach, whose mastery of counterpoint is strongly evoked in many of Hersch's solos. Though the title inevitably brings to mind the anxieties of the past 21 months, Breath By Breath is a concept album of sorts inspired by Hersch's practice of a form of meditation where attention is placed on the breath. "Begin Again," also the title of Hersch's 2019 album with the WDR Big Band, illustrates the continuing cycle of renewal—and some would say reincarnation—that occurs with each breath.

"Monkey Mind," the constant barrage of distraction that afflicts every meditator, is vividly evoked by the volleys of short abstract phrases that pinball between piano, strings and Jochen Rueckert's drums. "Mara," the mythical figure whose blandishments were rejected by the historical Buddha on his path to awakening, dances, leaps and tempts over an ominous pedal point tapped out, col legno, by the high strings. The Buddha, unmoved, touches his hand to the Earth, asking it to witness his commitment, in a stately locked-hands chorale from Hersch. The bright, up-tempo "Worldly Winds" bounces on Drew Gress's agile bass before Hersch brings the record home with "Pastorale." With a simple, folk-like melody and over a guitar-like left-hand figure, this could be a classic James Taylor song. It is full of grace and heart, a lovely way to close a lovely record by a great jazz pianist.

Track Listing

Begin Again; Awakened Heart; Breath By Breath; Monkey Mind; Rising Falling; Mara; Know That You Are; Worldly Winds; Pastorale.

Personnel

Fred Hersch: piano; Drew Gress: bass; Jochen Rueckert: drums; Joyce Hammann: violin; Laura Seaton: violin; Lois Martin: viola; Jody Redhage: cello.

Additional Instrumentation

Rogerio Boccato, percussion on "Mara."

Album information

Title: Breath By Breath | Year Released: 2022 | Record Label: Palmetto Records

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