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I had the opportunity to see the Fred Hersch Trio perform at the Wildwood Jazz Festival (Little Rock) in 1996. At the time I was unfamiliar with him and thus had no expectations of his performance. I found him to be a precise performer and exceptional arranger. His trio was razor sharp, sculpting standards and originals with the direction of his innovative arrangements. One of the highlights he and his trio performed was Monk?s "In Walked Bud". A year later I was happy to read in downbeat that Hersch had a Monk project in the works which was released in January.
Thelonious: Fred Hersch Plays Monk is one of the most unique treatments of Monks music I have heard. A critical juxtaposition can be made to Marcus Roberts? very traditional treatment of Monk. Where Roberts comes off a fundamentalist, Hersch comes off an impressionist. To mature this metaphor: if Monk?s music is a collection of water lilies, then Hersch plays the part of Monet performing them, painting them.
Hersch as impressionist is best illustrated on "?Round Midnight" which opens with an upper register whisper of the ballad melody. The entire piece is played lightly, almost ethereally, with a minimum of arrangement. It is played as if almost in a daydream. I can imagine "Five Views of Misterioso" being the result of Debussy interpreting Monk?s most famous blues while slumming on the Left Bank. Hersch plays the minimalist on "Misterioso, altering the essence of the song with each consideration. He plays with a light touch that is never aggressive and always sensitive.
A brief digression: Hersch is no blues player. This fact is illustrated in the fact that "Misterioso" aside, Hersch plays none of Monk?s hard blues ("Straight, No Chaser", "Blue Monk"). Also, the blues are conspicuously absent from his most recent recordings, Live at Maybeck, Passion Flower, and Plays Rodgers and Hammerstein. He is, however, a ballad and light standard player nonparallel. Fred Hersch is to ballad playing what Gene Harris is to blues playing.
There are songs on Thelonious that Hersch does play pretty straight. "In Walked Bud" is precise and rollicking, as well as "I Mean You." "Let?s Cool One" is a minimalists dream, evolving from a right hand, single note presentation of the theme through an insinuating left hand who finally meets the right in the sparest of bass lines. "Bemsha Swing" is a Monk walk in Central Park, moderately paced and tasteful.
Tasteful. That is how to describe this entire record. I should like to hear a Hersch recording of Miles Davis? most popular ballads. I hope he records one.
Track Listing: 'Round Midnight, In Walked Bud, Crepuscule with Nellie/Reflections, Think of One, Ask Me Now, Evidence, Five Vies of Misterioso, Let?s Cool One, Bemsha Swing, Light Blue/Pannonica, I Mean You, 'Round Midnight Reprise