Fred Hersch is a consistently inventive and beautiful jazz pianist. I call him a beautiful jazz pianist not because all of his playing results in conventionally “pretty” playing—though there is no shortage of lyricism and consonance in his work. Rather, Hersch’s playing is beautiful because it is rich in both surprise and formal elegance. Here is a jazz improviser whose work is adventurous but never slapdash.
This thoughtfulness extends to the many contexts in which Hersch places his piano. His “Pocket Orchestra” recording from earlier this year featured a group containing a wordless singer, Ralph Alessi’s trumpet, and drums. His Leaves of Grass project gave musical form to the great Walt Whitman poem through a pair of voices and a jazz band. His basic jazz trio is without a better, he has written chamber and vocal music, he plays as a vocal accompanist, and he plays two-piano and solo piano like a master. Each project has a reason to be.
Solo piano, the old saw goes, is where the rubber hits the jazz road. A solo jazz pianist needs all the tools, because he must provide rhythmic impetus, harmonic variety, texture and contour, melody, and then he must be able to invent and reinvent all of this on the fly, without help. Solo jazz pianists would be wise not to handcuff themselves in any way, as they generally need all the stars to line up.
Why then would Fred Hersch restrict himself on a solo piano recital to a single composer who wrote in a distinctive style: Antonio Carlos Jobim and the bossa nova?
On Fred Hersch Plays Jobim, the pianist makes clear that he loves and understands this music. Hersch is, in the words of his own liner notes, making the case that Jobim is “one of the great composers of the 20th century regardless of genre”. Hersch should have some insight: he has plays this music for decades and with some of its best and most famous interpreters, such as Stan Getz. He approaches the task, happily, by taking a variety of approaches to these songs, and not always the obvious bossa approach.
Take “Corvocado”, one of the Jobim warhorses you have heard a thousand times. Hersch strips it of its overt bossa rhythm and plays it as a ballad with a formal—vaguely classical—underlying left-hand pattern. The opening and closing of the arrangement are delicate and stringent impressions of the song that spare all the schmaltz that listeners might associate with loungey bossa players. Though Hersch is arguably today’s most accomplished follower of Bill Evans, this “Corvocado” has a stern quality that keeps Evans-esque impressionism at arm’s length. Though the improvisation in the center of the tune gets slightly more ornamented, the ultimate effect of this performance is to establish that “Corvocado” is a formally fantastic composition—more than just some catchy Brazilian groove. Mission accomplished, as with a similar approach taken with “Insensatez”.
For the most part, however, Hersch steers clear of the best-known Jobim tunes. Most jazz fans, I think, would be hard-pressed to identify “Por Toda Minha Vida” as a Jobim tune, but just by name and melody but also by harmonic imprint and style. Hersch plays it as a polite ballad with few jazz leanings, no real improvisation, and no samba-fied groove. “O Grande Amor” starts as a kind of two-part invention, with left and right hands in hip counterpoint but, again, little sense of bossa nova. Here, however, Hersch quickly takes the tune into modern territory, and Jobim’s characteristic keening chords emerge.
There is one tune established as a kind of duet, “Brigas Nunca Mais”, with Hersch’s stabbing piano tap dancing against Jamie Haddad’s subtle percussion. It’s a somewhat odd interlude in a program that, otherwise, saw the piano as percussion enough. Preferable are the longer tracks where Hersch gets himself lost inside Jobim’s marvelous chords and lines, such as the magical “Modinha/Olha Maria”. This track makes utterly credible Hersch’s case that Jobim had the imagination and structural genius to be considered alongside not only Gershwin but also Copland. “Luiza” also plays like one of the heftier compositions of Satie or perhaps meditative Debussy. Leave “The Girl from Ipanema” to the cocktail lounge, perhaps, but these arrangements yearn for the concert hall.
Fred Hersch Plays Jobim might seem a bit monochromatic on first listen, but it repays the time put into it. There are few jazz pianists better able to explore the inner workings of a great song—the inner voices of its harmonies and the critical melodic elements as exploited for variation—than Hersch. This careful program is a kind of Jobim dissection, but it is better thought of as an illumination. For the songs don’t wind up in pieces but actually seeming more whole than ever.