Pianist Fred Hersch is proving himself to be not only a solid mainstream jazz pianist but also an imaginative and creative musical force. His Leaves of Grass
(Palmetto, 2005), with vocalist Kurt Elling broke new ground by setting the poetry of Walt Whitman to written and improvised musical composition incorporating jazz and traditional "heartland American motifs. Fred Hersch Live at the Bimhuis
(Palmetto, 2006) offered a panoply of solo piano music at a high level of sophistication and technique.
On Night and the Music, Hersch joins forces with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Nasheet Waits, using the richly interactive and expressive piano trio format (as powerfully developed by Bill Evans and taken further by Keith Jarrett) to form a latticework of images and musical ideas that is both highly listenable and relentlessly probing. The tracks include several originals, some American Songbook standards, and two Thelonious Monk compositions. The three musicians function as a tight, integrated unit sustaining stylistic integrity and steadiness of purpose such that the total impression is that of a unified exploration of the possibilities inherent in a series of tri-alogues about a few key ideas initiated by Hersch at the keyboard.
The thematics of the album are more implied than stated, encouraging and allowing the listener to bring in his or her own understanding. The overriding motif is the dialogue between personal human experience and the cosmos, a dualistic mythos of Enlightenment philosophy that was a recurrent preoccupation of none other than Beethoven. Thus, for example, an original called "Galaxies is combined with the standard "You and the Night and the Music. Monk's "Boo Boo's Birthday is a personal testament, while his "Misterioso haunts us with a reach towards something beyond the human, something cosmic. "Change Partners contrasts with "Gravity's Pull.
And so on, in an alternating exploration of possibilities inherent in the "starry nights of both Van Gogh and the astronomers. There are also some echoes of the late Beethoven in the complex counterpoint that emerges among Hersch, Gress, and Waits as they brood together on the vicissitudes of Fate and what it all might mean.
This CD is conservative in its layout of what could be a coherent nightclub set rather than a juxtaposition of discordant variation that is characteristic of some of Hersch's other recordings. A comparison with the groundbreaking Bill Evans trio's At the Village Vanguard (Riverside, 1961) is inevitable. Both are non-stop introspective explorations (coincidentally the title of one of Evans' best albums). However, Evans was undeniably a romantic, while Hersch is anything but sentimental.
On this CD, the music is presented as a series of puzzles and conundrums examined with Zen-like detachment or perhaps, in another regard, the mathematical precision of J.S. Bach. One is indeed moved, but not so much by the depth of feeling as by the imposing architecture of the musical development itself.