When it comes to the art of solo piano in jazz, there are currently two classes of performers: Fred Hersch and everybody else.
A statement such as that might spur the jazz cognoscenti to ready the pitchforks and torches, but that threat doesn't make that claim any less true. Keith Jarrett may surpass all in his ability to pull completely improvised music out of thin air, Brad Mehldau's brilliance certainly shines through when he weaves his two hands in different directions and reconfigures the harmony and melody of a song, and countless others impress with wit, athleticism, range, sophistication, and/or emotional complexity. But at the end of the day, there's simply no pianist who does a better job of connecting through and with a piece of music than Fred Hersch.
Hersch manages to create a magical bond with listeners, as this writer has observed first-hand on more than one occasion, and part of his ability to do so is likely linked to the way he balances the sounds of inevitability and surprise in his performances. His every note, chord, and gesture, be they composed or improvised, comes off as if there was no other way they could or should exist. Yet, at the same time, his pathways are never predictable. On this album, recorded live at a church in the Catskills in the summer of 2014, the best example of that paradoxical performing ability comes in the form of "Caravan." Everything is in its right place there, but Hersch is the one dictating what those right places are. Notes seem to beam off in different directions as Hersch works a somewhat pointillistic angle. It's an adventurous performance that still sounds destined to exist just as it is.
Across the six other tracks, Hersch manages to impress in different ways. "Olha Maria/O Grande Amor" is a study on grace and movement, "Pastorale (For Robert Schumann)" comes off as a masterclass in refinement and taste, and "The Song Is You" is pure beauty unfolding. Those who pigeonhole Hersch as a purely gentle pianistic soul will be rendered mute by "Whirl (For Suzanne Farrell)" and an incredibly expansive and firm-handed take on Thelonious Monk's "In Walked Bud." But that's not to say that Hersch doesn't deliver heartfelt material: his album-ending meditation on Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" is simply breathtaking.
The large majority of this material has appeared elsewhere in Hersch's discography, be it in trio form or on a different solo outing, but this isn't more of the same. As good as some of those performances might beand they are very goodthese performances are second to none.
Olha Maria/O Grande Amor; Caravan; Pastorale (For Robert Schumann); Whirl (For
Suzanne Farrell); The Song Is You; In Walked
Bud; Both Sides Now.
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