A whole evening or an entire album of solo improvisation is the ultimate challenge to any keyboardist's ability to sustain the listener's interest. It takes quite a bit of daring, or else a feeling that one has "arrived as a master, to risk such an enterprise. Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau have successfully done itand it is no accident that their names connote the best of the best in their craft. Now Fred Hersch takes the leap, moving beyond his well-deserved reputation as a creative, at times brilliant sideman, group leader and composer to a master of solo piano improvisation.
Note that I have deliberately omitted the word "jazz here, because the music on this outstanding CD, recorded live in the exquisite new home of the legendary Amsterdam Bimhuis jazz club, is a fusion of jazz themes and motifs with musical impressionism as it emerged in the compositions of Gabriel Faure, Erik Satie, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuryand ultimately wove its way into jazz via Ellington, Lester Young and others, reaching its jazz piano apogee in Bill Evans' stylings during his 1960s Village Vanguard days.
"Impressionism is music where sound qualities and images take precedence over melodies and chord progressions as such. The mood is often, though not always, contemplative, and the purpose evocative, giving a sense of presence or "recollection in tranquility, as the case may be. For instance, in Hersch's "A Lark, the right-hand passages at the very high end of the keyboard evoke bird song, more of a poetic metaphor than a thematic line. He sustains such evocative experiences in many modes, on many levels, with varied subject matter, throughout this recording.
The overall effect is remarkablea sense of an hour-long journey through a musician's freely associating mind. Hersch sustains interest through shifts of mood, rhythmic complexity, interesting counterpoint, left/right hand independence, and the imparting of equal weight and importance to all octaves of the keyboard. Contextually, the respectful, quiet listening of the audience and the excellent microphone placement enhance these effects. The sound evenly spreads out horizontally, just as it would to the pianist himself, so that the relationship between Hersch and the listener is one of identification and intimacy. Further, Hersch notes that he wasn't aware the sets were being recorded, allowing him to be less self-conscious than he might be at a typical recording session.
One caveat: do not conclude that this recording is typical of Fred Hersch's style. A true "working musician, he has proven himself capable of a wide diversity of approaches. And while this recording is unmistakably Hersch, especially the confidence with which he works the keyboard, he has proven himself able to comp and solo with equal facility in many genres and approaches. This recording succeeds by virtue of its particular contemplative consistency. It is rich in both jazz and classical undertones and overtones, totally uncompromising, and very listenable.