Music

Fred Hersch: Open Book

Photo: Mark Niskanen (Courtesy of artist)

Built around a long, wholly-improvised concert performance, this solo piano recital from Fred Hersch is stunning evidence that he is one of the few great solo jazz pianists currently alive.


Fred Hersch

Open Book

Label: Palmetto
US Release Date: 2017-09-08
UK Release Date: 2016-09-08
Amazon
iTunes

There are at least 50 jazz pianists today in the top echelon. Proclaiming any one of them the best at anything is simply an act of taste, not an honest ranking. But it is widely acknowledged that the toughest act in jazz piano is to play alone and keep things enchanting, varied, and surprising.

Surely Fred Hersch is in the top few on nearly everyone’s Solo Jazz Piano lists. Hersch is someone who played for two weeks at the Village Vanguard by himself and has recorded as much solo piano as anyone but Keith Jarrett. And his latest studio recording, Open Book, is another strong example, though it is one that may take some fans longer to digest.

At the center of the recording is an entirely improvised, 20-minute composition, “Through the Forest”. It is a stunning piece, a piece of subtle and arresting musical thinking that avoids nearly every obvious move and just keeps proving itself. Not flashy or loud, lacking any climatic section where Hersch goes for gospel chords or spinning lyricism, “Through the Forest” is a piece of complex elegance. If you pick up a magazine or your phone while it’s on, you will lose the thread. It requires your full attention more than once.

Hersch writes that he recorded this piece live and then returned to the concert hall in Seoul where he performed it to record other music with which to surround it for the album. His choices are extremely varied: two other originals, jazz standards by Benny Golson and Thelonious Monk, a Jobim song played as a lyrical ballad, and a Billy Joel tune. It is in these surrounding pieces where Hersch has triumphed most clearly.

Jobim’s “Zingaro” immediately precedes “Through the Forest”, and it is an ideal vehicle for the careful and delicate motivic development that Hersch uses in the longer piece. While Jobim’s beautiful melody and harmonies are intact and draw you in, the pianist plays his variations in a manner that evolves in risky, unexpected ways. The rhythm flips subtly, creating different pulses, and Hersch readily follows harmonic paths that are not written so that we feel him steer the song to the edge of a cliff. Similarly, his original “Plainsong” follows “Forest” and provides a platform for evolving improvisation that is so lyrical that you will follow it absolutely anywhere, even away from the composition itself.

Both “Whisper Not” (by Golson) and “Eronel” (by Monk) provide a playful contrast to a straight “jazz” approach. “Whisper Not” begins with dancing counterpoint lines in both hands that hint at Bach for just a few seconds before they become swinging and coy, but still sounding like a grooving invention. The familiar standard grows out of this approach slllllllllowly, but once it arrives Hersh keeps the arrangement swirling, conversing, and commenting on itself. Hersch performs the Monk tune like it was a romp, a light-hearted thing, a prancing tune to inspire a skip down a wooded lane. His left-hand bops and bounces, but so does his right, and both play with the rhythm constantly, running a stop-start groove that keeps everything effervescent.

The best tunes, though, maybe the first and last. “The Ord” is a Hersch original that starts you off, and it is a melancholy ode that still allows rays of hope in chord my chord, little rays of optimism that add to the lyricism. The improvisation is seamless, rising and falling like slow breaths. Hersch closes with, of all things, a song by Billy Joel, the hymn-like “And So It Goes”. Joel’s versions are beautiful but somewhat heavy-handed, moving in steps almost entirely in the mid-range of the piano. Hersch plays the melody with faith, but his sense of flow is from another world. He plays the tune, and his variations on it, across the whole keyboard, maintaining the gospel elements but moving the harmonies in elegant ways, adding impressionist voicings and spinning it to a heavenly place. It is a love song, and Fred Hersch plays it with a moving tenderness.

After you’ve listened to the whole record without distraction, go back and listen again. The pleasures deepen. And when you get to the centerpiece, that less obvious “Through the Forest”, it sounds different. It seems to contain traces of all these other ideas, abstracted and made more clear perhaps. It swells more, and it sweeps in a whole conception of what solo jazz piano can be.

9

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image