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Fred Hersch at Herbst Theatre

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Submitted on behalf of Dave Roberts

Fred Hersch is an excellent pianist. This is evident on the CD Fred Hersch Plays Monk (Nonesuch, 1998), in which he manages to personalize such classics as "Round Midnight," "In Walked Bud," and "Bemsha Swing," without losing their quirky Monkness. He brings an intelligence and care of arrangement to his work. For example, the first half of "Bemsha Swing" is played with only the right hand. When the left hand finally comes in, it engages in a conversational dialogue with the right hand rather than traditional comping. The hands finally come together to play the head-out. His duet record with guitarist Bill Frisell Songs We Know (Nonesuch, 1998) is a marvel of duo interplay and inventive arranging. Hersch's Live at Maybeck, Volume 31 (Concord Records, 1993) is one of the many treasures in that marvelous Maybeck series.
Unfortunately, much of the Hersch magic did not come across, at least to these ears, at Herbst Theatre on March 10. It may not have been his playing or the pieces he played in a program dubbed "Songs Without Words." The problem might instead have been a mismatch between artist and venue. Hersch's music is intricate and subtle, requiring your attention to be heard at its best. It's a style of playing that is suited to an intimate listening environment.
Herbst Theatre is one of San Francisco's premiere recital halls, if not the preeminent one. With 928 seats it's intimate by classical music (and certainly by rock) standards, but it feels cavernous for solo, unamplified jazz piano, even if it is being played on a Steinway grand. Don't get me wrong, I prefer unamplified music. Amplification, even when done very well, is a distortion of the original sound, and thus the music. But, for better or worse, we've all been weaned on listening to instruments that are close-mic'd. Often the sound heard on a jazz piano CD is the sound you would hear if you stuck your head directly under the piano lid. As you might expect, it's big, powerful, rich, dynamic, and intense when the pianist wants that. But close-micing also conveys quite well the details of soft, intimate and intricate expression.
So, what surprised me initially when Hersch began playing was the remoteness of the piano sound. Much of the power and impact of that rich Steinway sound so often heard on disc evaporated into Herbst Theatre's recesses, balcony and high ceiling. This may not be a problem so much if you're sitting in the first five to ten rows, or if the music itself is big and powerful such as that of Beethoven, Liszt or McCoy Tyner. But it's a shame when you can't hear all of the subtlety and intricacy in compositions and improvisations filled with those qualities.

As a result, while the pieces performed that night did not make an indelible impression, I'm sure they will hold up much better on Hersch's newly released three-CD set Songs Without Words(Nonesuch, 2001). One CD is devoted to originals, the second to pieces by some of his favorite jazz composers, and the third to Cole Porter. All three were on display during the evening. He played an obscure Monk tune, "Work," the Duke Ellington classic, "Caravan," two tunes by Porter, and six originals played in the form of a suite without interruption. "Caravan," which began pointillistically and was reharmonized, was almost unrecognizable, sounding more like modern classical music than 1940s exotic big band riffing — albeit with the decidedly non-classical (but Monklike) occasional lifting of his right leg in the air as the music builds in intensity.

The suite of originals covered a range of styles: an aria, a ballad, a tango, a "duet," a lullaby, and a waltz. Many of the pieces were played with an active left-hand accompaniment, triplets, pulsations, at times angular, at other times flowing, almost always in motion. Hersch has one of the better left hands in jazz piano, an area that some pianists leave mostly to simple chording. At times I would have preferred both hands to be a bit less busy, for there to be a bit more space. But these are his pieces and who am I to attempt to rewrite them.

It would be great to see Hersch return to the Bay Area and play in a more intimate space such as Yoshi's, or better yet, Bruno's. In the meantime, let's thank San Francisco Performances for year-in and year-out bringing artists of Hersch's caliber to the Bay Area. The final show in this season's jazz series is April 28 with violinist Regina Carter and percussionist Stefon Harris at Herbst Theatre. Carter will be with a quintet, Harris with a quartet — likely all will be amplified — so they should fill up the theatre space quite well.

Dave Roberts has been a professional writer for more than a decade in newspapers, magazines and high-tech. He's a student of jazz piano, and writing a book, Tips From the Jazz Piano Pros, consisting of interviews with jazz pianists that focus on the art and craft of playing jazz piano.

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