Many of the greatest jazz musicians have refused to let physical setbacks derail their artistic journey. When Les Paul discovered his broken arm would be permanently set in one position, he made sure it was at a proper angle for guitar playing. Guitarist Pat Martino suffered a brain aneurysm and had to relearn to play the guitarand rediscover his very being. Pianist Fred Hersch can now be added to this list.
In late 2008, Hersch fell into a coma that lasted two months, could not swallowor eat or drinkfor eight months and suffered a variety of other AIDS-related ailments (i.e. renal failure) as his body was, essentially, shutting down. Medical care, sheer determination and the miraculous spirit of the human body eventually helped Hersch battle back but, as David Hadju noted in an article for the New York Times Magazine, "he lost nearly all motor function in his hands and could not hold a pencil, let alone play the piano." While it would be easy for many people, given the same circumstances, to give up, Fred Hersch is not most people. One of the most artistically driven forces in jazz and one of the most influential pianists of his generation, Hersch buckled down, focused intensely on rehabilitation and brought himself back into the fold.
Whirl is the first recording Hersch has made after his recovery and, while still retaining the key components of his sound and style, a looser and more organic feel seems to surround some of this music. The effortless, relaxed swing of "You're My Everything" begins the album. Drummer Eric McPherson's light touch and constant movement help to gently move this piece along while bassist John Hebert's playing is highly complementary to Hersch's ideas. McPherson is the rare musician who often paints non-stop ideas, yet manages to blend into the bigger picture and add all the right touches. Hersch's "Snow Is Falling..." is a wonderful example of his Midas touch on the piano. Few whose fingers grace the 88s can even come close to getting the sound that Hersch charms out of a piano. The airy ambience endemic to Paul Motian's work is apparent in Hersch's moody and intriguing take on the drummer's "Blue Midnight." Hebert and McPherson help a great deal in painting this beautifully hazy picture.
"Skipping" is one of the hippest pieces on this album and the titleperhaps referencing the mixed meters or simply the act of skippingperfectly reflects the fun and jaunty feel. "Mandevilla," self described by Hersch as a habanera that's "named after a Brazilian jasmine vine," gives Hebert a chance to step out front for a bit and the bassist perfectly supports Hersch during his brilliant and enthusiastic soloing. McPherson moves to brushes for the trio's musings on "When Your Lover Has Gone," an evocative display of sensitivity mixed with creativity. While Hersch has never had, and is unlikely to develop, a heavy handed approach to playing, his sound is definitely bolder and more agressive as his trio swirls and storms through the musical whirlwinds of "Whirl." The calm after the storm arrives with "Sad Poet," a Hersch original dedicated to Antonio Carlos Jobim. While McPherson solos over the vamp at the end of the song, the better part of the piece swims through calm waters andwhile avoiding any direct reference to Jobim's canonserves as a fine tribute to this musical pioneer.
Pianist Jaki Byard was one of Hersch's teachers and he pays tribute to this underappreciated educator, composer and performer by interpreting Byard's Thelonious Monk-ish tribute to saxophonist Charlie Parker's mother, "Mrs. Parker of K.C." Hersch's takes on this type of tune are always a study in contrasts, with his clean and precise touch seemingly at odds with the earthy vibe of the music; but these opposing ideals are part of what makes this performanceand many like itso compelling. The album ends with "Still Here," a reflective musical jewel that pays tribute to saxophonist Wayne Shorter and his continuing ability to create and inspire. In closing the album with such a title, Hersch might have been subconsciously referencing his own brush with death. Thankfully, he too is still here to continue to create and inspire.
Tracks: You're My Everything; Snow Is Falling...;Blue Midnight; Skipping; Mandevilla; When Your Lover Has Gone; Whirl; Sad Poet; Mrs. Parker Of K.C.; Still Here.
Personnel: Fred Hersch: piano; John Hebert: bass; Eric McPherson: drums.
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