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.