It's time to use the g-word when referring to Fred Hersch. Although the word has been overused and thoroughly diluted in our culture, for me it's as elusive as the g-spot. In fact, I've never used the term "genius" to describe a living artistat least, not until nowand it's probably long overdue, at that.
What makes a genius, anyway? I believe it requires an inspired originality that's way beyond talent, and a restless, searching intelligence that continues to grow and develop. Hersch stretches higher and plumbs deeper with more consisistency than any pianist I can think of, and that field sparkles with excellent players. It's not just his boundary busting, like setting Whitman to music in his Leaves of Grass, or writing jazz variations on Bach, a left-handed nocturne, or a choro while also swinging the Village Vanguard with his trio. It's not even the brilliance and beauty of his compositions, three of which appear on this release: "A Lark," "At the Close of the Day," and "Valentine," or the unsurpasssed lyricism and assured fluidity of his playing.
All of this helps, to be sure, but to qualify as "genius" you must see things differently from others, and be able to communicate that vision to your audience. Here, Hersch's exploration of "O Grande Amor" is utterly transformative: when he delves into its soul it becomes an astonishing contrapuntal flow. Although I'm a card-carrying Jobim fanatic, I've never heard it conceptualized that way. Similarly, Hersch's lustrous rendition of "The Nearness of You" is bolder and more multifaceted than ever (he's recorded it solo before, on Let Yourself Go (Nonesuch, 1999). It's always a beautiful tune, but Hersch lifts it to a whole new level of richness and imagination. To complete this stunning set, Jimmy Rowles's "The Peacocks" gets a twelve-minute meditation that becomes its own transcendent world, and Hersch does things with Monk's "Evidence" and "Don't Blame Me" that stamp them indelibly with his signature.
Live at Bimhuis also benefits from the convergence of several happy conditions. As Hersch explains in the liners, it was recorded without his knowing it, thereby eliminating his usual self-consciousness; the piano was a brand-new nine-foot Steinway; it was the last night of a ten-day solo European tour; the unusually attentive and savvy audience included a number of close friends. And, as he puts it, it was "one of those magical nights where everything felt right."
Magic indeed. Nobody knows exactly what makes one musician very, very good, and another a genius, but whatever it is, you can hear it on this release.