Fred Hersch has been a fixture on the New York jazz scene since the 1970s. By now a legendary international figure, Hersch has over the years compiled a powerful and diverse discography that includes everything from jazz standards to original compositions, a mostly solo album of the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim
, an original composition, Leaves of Grass
, based on the poetry of Walt Whitman, a recording of his own American classical pieces, a free form solo performance at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam, invited duets, and a string of albums with his evolving trios, mostly in club settings like the Village Vanguard, but more recently, live performances in concert halls. Then there is his music- theatrical composition and performance of My Coma Dreams
, available on DVD, documenting his personal trauma of a medically induced coma. Despite years of struggling with HIV-AIDS and (thankfully temporary) debilitation from the coma, Hersch has courageously moved forward with his music, always searching imaginatively for new ideas.
In much of his music, Hersch has explored a range of profound emotions. It's as if he has been looking introspectively to express the human condition in his music. This album is different. Here he is happy and content, a master toying with musical ideas. He has good reason to be happy. He has miraculously survived medical Armageddon, is in a long term satisfying gay marriage, relatively free of medical concerns, and travelling worldwide with his trio cohorts John Hébert
and Eric McPherson
, with whom he has established superb rapport. In this recording, which he discovered existed only after the concert, Hersch is on the stage of a state of the art radio broadcast auditorium, Flagey Studio 4 in Brussels, with ideal acoustics and piano, and an eager and supportive audience. For Hersch, it has been a well deserved evolution from the musty if seminal Bradley's club in Greenwich Village where he started out. He has good reason to be a happy man in this special moment and place of performance.
Thus, the tracks on this recording, which include several Hersch originals in addition to tunes by Thelonious Monk
and Wayne Shorter
, are sharply defined and conceptually interestingand fun! It's as if Hersch is interested in what he can do with notes, rhythms, and punctuations, not so much in going emotionally to the depths. He nimbly thinks his way through complex ideas like they are child's play. Bass and drums catch on quickly to provide coherence and a real sense of exchange and interaction. This is especially true in the first five tracks. Then, beginning with a ballad called "Bristol Fog," the approach is more straight ahead, reminiscent of the hard bop that characterized Hersch's early days.
To begin with, it's always interesting to see what Hersch does with a Thelonious Monk
tune. Unlike many who play Monk minus Monk, Hersch finds his way into Monk on Monk's terms. "We See" starts out with drummer McPherson's use of sticks on metal, tapping off a rhythm that sets an emphasis on pure pulse that pervades the whole album and gives the music precision and polish. It gives Hersch an opportunity for spontaneous play within a highly defined structure, each part having its own rhythmic principle. You get the Monk idea by the way Hersch plays around with swing era syncopations and adds Monk's "outish" notes and clusters.
The name of the tune "Snape Maltings" is from one of the locations of the Aldeburgh, England music festival that Benjamin Britten and his lover Peter Pears founded. The tune tells a free-floating story without specific content, maybe an imagined conversation between Britten and Pears. It serves as a kind of "ballade interruptus" where the melody is disrupted by short staccato bursts of notes. The rhythmic shifts are speech-like, like someone talking. Hébert and McPherson each encounter Hersch in an interesting exchange. It's almost a literal exemplification of Bill Evans's "conversational" use of the piano trio. As the piece concludes, the musicians are "talking" to one another in a rich interplay of notes rather than words.
"Scuttlers" starts with drum rappings whch Hersch in the liner notes says was suggested by the sound of crabs moving about. Taking over from the drums, he experiments with short bursts of notes which avoid a key signature. The piece segues without interruption into the next piece, "Skipping," where the rhythm picks up and Hersch starts to land some hard bop melodic lines and a pleasant swing rhythm. He refuses to quote a whole tune, but seems to play around with hints of the standards of Rogers and Hart and others of that ilk. The shift to a more straight ahead approach is beginning to take place and comes into full form with a piano-bass duet entitled "Bristol Fog," a ballad with a touch of French impressionist feeling. The piece could be understood as a tribute to pianist Bill Evans
and features a beautiful extended solo by bassist Hébert that makes one think of Evans' bassists Scott LoFaro and Eddie Gomez.
"Newklypso" (the name comes from Sonny Rollins
' nickname Newk and his love of calypso) is an original and an audience pleaser, It would press logic to make anything more of it. In fact, "Newk's" "Don't Stop the Carnival" from 1978 is more daring. But it does give drummer McPherson an opportunity for a strong, evocative solo. With "The Big Easy," Hersch engages in straight ahead blues playing, reminiscent of Tommy Flanagan, and maybe lingering around the corner from "Green Dolphin Street."
Wayne Shorter can wake up any jazz fan from his slumber, including Hersch himself. Shorter's "Miyako" is a sweet ballad, but as it moves along, Hersch startles us with brilliantly conceived Bach-like interludes. He maintains the energy by shifting directly into another Shorter tune, one of the latter's incomparable standards, "Black Nile." Hersch takes it straight ahead and then breaks out into a brilliantly executed hard bop solo.
The album concludes by returning to Monk. In "Blue Monk," Hersch mixes it up with some stride syncopation, counterpoint, even a touch of vaudeville, eventually playing the melody almost like a player piano. The last two tracks show Hersch at his best, brilliantly inventive with masterful use of traditional structures.