Fred Hersch‘s Breath by Breath is a third-stream masterpiece. In addition to enlisting bassist Drew Gress and drummer Jochen Rueckert, the veteran pianist has opened the sound up to include percussionist Rogerio Boccato and all four members of the Crosby Street String Quartet. Breath by Breath sounds like a jazz piano trio album with string additions on some tracks. On others, the lines between jazz and classical music will start to blur. As the genre continues to dreamily float in some in-between zone, musical emphasis shifts between piano and string quartet. Compositionally, Hersch’s implementation of the string quartet into his pieces is breathtaking.
It turns out that Hersch had been pondering the inner workings of a string quartet for most of his life. “I grew up listening to string quartets as a very young musician in Cincinnati,” he writes in the album’s liner notes. “My piano teacher was the wife of the cellist in the famous LaSalle Quartet. I used to lie on the rug in their living room as an elementary school student while they rehearsed, quietly following along, hearing how the viola part meshed with the first violin, or the second violin and the cello.” Hersch then describes how he began studying composition at age eight. You read that right. That means Hersch has had close to 60 years to think about how best to loop a string quartet through his piano compositions – or the other way around.
Of the nine pieces on Breath by Breath, eight make up “The Sati Suite”. “Sati” roughly translates to “mindfulness” or “awareness”, thus making the 40 minutes of music revolve around meditation. Some titles don’t need much explanation, like “Breath by Breath”, “Rising, Falling”, and “Know That You Are”. Others are a bit more abstract, like “Monkey Mind” and “Mara”, if you are unfamiliar with stories of the Buddha. The theme lies within the subject rather than the music itself, allowing Hersch to do whatever he likes stylistically. “Mara”, named for a god that tempted Buddha with material desires, makes Boccato the star of the show. Like clockwork, his light percussive touch is the only pulse behind cellist Jody Redhage Ferber as she introduces Hersch’s tenuous solo. The sleepy drone that Boccato creates is an atmosphere not unlike something Cyro Baptista would record for Tzadik.
The opener, “Begin Again”, leans towards the jazzier side of the third stream spectrum, though Rueckert’s beat is more Latin-influenced than swing. “Awakened Heart” is pure melancholy, starting with a molto string quartet and handing things over to Hersch as he searches for a new link between the spirit of Bill Evans and mindful meditation. “Breath by Breath” begins as a quartet piece but soon finds Rueckert escorting them with brushwork, thereby morphing into a quiet piece of lounge jazz. “Worldly Winds”, the concluding movement, sees the two approaches fully immersed with one another. The quartet get a track to themselves with “Know That You Are”, a Romantic piece of shifting chords and unclear resolution. “Monkey Mind”, named for distracting thoughts that get in the way of meditation, leaps over the Romantic era with string pizzicato and wide interval hopping from Hersch.
The one track that is not part of “The Sati Suite” is placed at the end, “Pastorale (Homage a Robert Schumann)”. Hersch begins the piece with a pretty unassuming pattern that continually rises as more and more is added to the mix. That all stops at one point and turns into a plucked string quartet melody that ushers in Hersch staccato melody. If this is an homage to “The Merry Peasant”, then said peasant must have gotten lost somewhere along the way – or took a detour to a tavern. By the time the rest of the piano trio returns, the harmony has turned to a shifting state of bewilderment. But as all conflict is soon followed by resolution, Hersch takes everything back to an agreeable place of rest with both piano and strings.
Breath by Breath is a special album by any standard. Whether one considers it a crossover project or just an enhanced jazz album, the compositions and performances can’t be improved. Together, the continuity they produce can only be enhanced from repeated listens.