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Like Ornette Coleman, Roger Kellaway, and other major musicians Fred Hersch inhabits a world of pure music. Not that he has left "jazz" behind, but his compositions and improvisations extend beyond the usual tradition. As a solo pianist he is free to drift into or out of tempo and with or without predefined chord changes or a comfortable 4/4 swing. He plays without a thought of what would be expected. "Caravan" began as a slow, jerky tango with spare harmonies. Later Hersch picked the tempo up and moved into intersecting, alternating linesleft hand vs. right handbefore wrapping up over Cuban rhythms. Cole Porter's "So In Love" unfolded as an agonizingly slow and lovely waltz with chorus after chorus of pure, spontaneous melody. "Work", a Monk tune not on Hersch's Monk CD, moved in and out of tempo with a quirky Hersch rhythm less jagged than Monk. Russian romantic harmonies flavored "The Wind" by Russ Freeman (Chet Baker with Strings, 1954). Hersch rendered the piece in a slow rubato with emphasis on beauty. Hersch's "Songs Without Words" from his upcoming 3-CD set (release date February, 2000), an ambitious six-part suite, went as follows: "Air" (in 9/8 I think) up tempo with hints of Toots Thielemans' "Bluesette"; "Ballad"; "Tango" started as a slow burn and became percussive; "Duet" early Chick Corea feel; "Lullaby"; "Waltz" vigorous swing. A highlight of the concert, Benny Golson's "Whisper Not", was distinguished by a brilliant new story every chorus, Hersch ripping into the "march" section with relish. Cole Porter's "You're the Top," decimated by Monkish stride, came off not tongue in cheek but oddly funny anyway. The acoustics (with no piano amplification) and presentation at the Skirball were all a listener or musician could hope for.
I love jazz because anything is possible; it has few rules and the best jazz breaks those ones. I prefer free improv because it doesn't really have any rules at all.
I was first exposed to jazz in my teens (in the late sixties).
The first jazz record I bought was Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis, shortly followed by Extrapolation by John McLaughlin.
My advice to new listeners is to listen as widely as possible and not to make snap judgments--stick with it.