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Of Stories, Songs, and Self: Fred Hersch's Good Things Happen Slowly & Open Book

Dan Bilawsky By

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Most everything in Fred Hersch's oeuvre has always miraculously existed as slow read and page-turner all at once. The many phrases, songs, and albums spun from the mind and fingers of this highly expressive pianist-composer have been something to really take time with, to be savored and appreciated for their beauty and depth of creative thought. But his performances simultaneously invite curiosity about what sits around the next bend. That seemingly paradoxical duality is just one of the many gifts endemic to Hersch's work, but it's truly the most apt one to cite when examining these two riveting releases—his memoir and the transparent yet exploratory solo date that serves as its companion piece.

Good Things Happen Slowly
Fred Hersch
320 Pages
ISBN-10 1101904348
Crown Archetype (Penguin Random House)
2017

Hersch's music has never been about fluff or putting on airs, and the same can now be said about his biographical writing and self-examination. With Good Things Happen Slowly, Fred Hersch presents an honest and compelling portrait of the artist from seed stage to full bloom, a pull-no-punches examination and exploration of living life as a gay man in a less-than-tolerant era and climate, a clear-eyed presentation of an HIV-positive status and the illnesses that come with it, and the dawning of love. Above all, it's a revealing look at a great man coming to terms with life and dissecting the need to belong.

Several months before the official release of Good Things Happen Slowly, an intimate event celebrating its arrival was held at Hersch's musical home base—New York's Village Vanguard. After some introductions, the pianist moved slightly outside of his comfort zone in taking to the stage for a reading, sharing the book's introduction with the small crowd. That taste of his written-turned-spoken work served as a portal into his search for acceptance and understanding in different realms, telling the story of time spent working a stage show at the Kings Island amusement park and literally taking a vantage point between two worlds—eating lunch at an L-shaped table where the jazz musicians sat to one side of him and the gay performers from the show occupied the other. As Hersch's life story continues to unfold in the book, that theme is developed to its fullest.

Hersch's musical gifts and discoveries are clearly detailed throughout. In that respect, you couldn't ask for a better depiction of how things unfolded. Hersch tells of his formative years, those who took him into the jazz fold in his native Cincinnati, studies with the great Jaki Byard at the New England Conservatory, shifting to the New York scene in the late '70s, soaking up sounds and information at Bradley's, working sideman stints with legends like Art Farmer and Joe Henderson, and owning and operating his own studio—Classic Sound. His work as bandleader, top-flight recording artist, and conceptualist also receive their due. Everything sits in balance to everything else on the musical end of the equation.

While Hersch's work is obviously paramount to this memoir, it's not subtitled "A Life In and Out of Jazz" for no reason. His personal life also carries serious weight here. Upper middle class origins and the strained parental dynamic that accompanied them, early epiphanies about sexual orientation, attempts at adjusting to the gay scene in Boston in the '70s, experiencing what the immoderate '80s had to offer in New York, living a closeted existence in the testosterone-dominated jazz scene, coming to grips with contracting HIV, coming out and taking an activist's stance, and finding the love of his life are all part of the picture here. Ditto for Hersch's near-death experience in 2008—his much-documented coma—and the artistic rebirth that followed. His personal and musical lives, forced to exist as separate entities for a very long stretch of time, eventually merge into a seamless whole, and Hersch pulls no punches in exploring how he reached that point.

On that same April evening when Hersch read from his book, he also took to the piano for a three-song set. Those of us in attendance couldn't have realized it at the time, but his inclusion of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" proved very telling. In Good Things Happen Slowly, he leverages that classic as a way to close his story in words, using it as framing device to touch on what he's learned and taken away from life to this point. It's the perfect way to mark the end of the memoir and the beginning of a new chapter.

Fred Hersch
Open Book
Palmetto Records
2017

Open Book, Hersch's eleventh solo piano album to date, is as revealing as they come. He lays himself bare, digging deep into the human psyche to discover what rests below the surface.

In some respects, this album is perfectly in keeping with Hersch's previous work. He delivers a dose of Jobim, a taste of Monk, a latter day ballad chestnut, a standard, and some structured original music. There's really nothing out of the ordinary to be found on that list. But "Through The Forest," the album's twenty-minute centerpiece, breaks the mold and proves to be a game-changer. It's a freely developing abstraction, born in the spirit of a moment in Seoul, South Korea, in November of 2016. In this exploration, darkness and light play against one another as fingers capture their eternal dance. Hersch seems to query nature at times, asking questions without expecting answers, and he willingly walks through some thorny brambles to get a fuller picture of the woods. There's simply nothing like it anywhere else in his discography.

The other six pieces, captured five months later in the same venue, are everything you'd desire and expect from a Hersch solo presentation. "The Orb," reflective of one of his coma dreams, opens the album and serves as a unique expression of love to his partner, Scott Morgan. "Whisper Not" follows, shining a light on the independent and linked nature of two swinging hands. Then there's a tender "Zingaro" that takes a turn toward the classical side of the fence, a "Plainsong" that's ruminative and inviting after a long time lost in the forest's grip, and a playful "Eronel" that's pure Hersch-on-Monk. A tear-inducing take on Bill Joel's "And So It Goes" comes last, closing the curtain on this most engaging of programs.

Open Book serves as a fine companion piece to go with Hersch's memoir, but it's a work that also stands alone, apart, and aloft without issue. This is another five-star find from one of jazz's greatest treasures.

Tracks and Personnel

Open Book

Tracks: The Orb; Whisper Not; Zingaro; Through The Forest; Plainsong; Eronel; And So It Goes.

Personnel: Fred Hersch: piano.

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