Review: Fred Hersch Trio Navigates Storm Clouds

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The Fred Hersch Trio playing at the Jazz Forum in New York.

(Photo: Bob Plotkin)

Vulnerability is part and parcel of Fred Hersch’s pianism. But on the night of Jan. 28, with a potentially hazardous bomb cyclone bearing down on New York, Hersch — like his bandmates and the 50 hardy souls assembled to hear the group at the Jazz Forum — was feeling more exposed than usual.

Predictions of high winds and deep snow had already caused the cancellation of the following night’s sets, and inside the club — a cozy listening room tucked away on a private road atop the steep hills of Tarrytown — the impending storm gave rise to an oddly exciting sense of peril. Anything, it seemed, could happen.

“This is going to be a little bit impromptu,” Hersch, in characteristic understatement, declared as he slid onto his seat at the piano. Longtime colleagues Drew Gress on bass and Billy Hart on drums — both sporting the anticipatory half-smiles of musicians about to embark on an unplanned set — seemed to back him up.

Had he planned the set for months, Hersch could not have chosen a better opener than trumpeter Kenny Wheeler’s “Everybody’s Song But My Own.” By turns playful and portentous, Hersch laid down spikey phrases against brooding chords while the 80-year-old Hart, sticks ablaze, matched his every jiggle and feint. Stabilized by Gress’ iron grip on the fingerboard, the trio built to a jittery finale — and with it, the tune, which was the title track of a 2011 Hersch album, caught the unsettled mood of the moment.

Similarly unsettling was Ornette Coleman’s “Turnaround,” a 12-bar blues that Hersch, like Coleman before him, seemed keen on transforming into something else. Hersch had tackled the tune in other settings, notably a 2016 two-piano performance with Sullivan Fortner at Jazz at Lincoln Center that, for all its informed interplay, seemed constrained by the format. But on this night, with the trio in tow, he was clearly liberated, rendering a determinedly disorienting reading in which linearity defied harmony — and time was stretched and squeezed out of all recognition.

If “Turnaround” was liberating in its elasticity, Jimmy Webb’s 1968 hit “Wichita Lineman” was equally freeing in its adherence to a kind of formalism. It found expression in the exquisite precision with which Hersch delivered the melody, the evocative twang of countrified chordal figures filtered through a jazz-centric sensibility, the specificity of the modulations, and, most especially, the clarity of inner voices that seemed to give voice to a youthful Hersch trying to make sense of his identity. Introducing the piece, which also appeared on his Songs From Home, solo takes recorded during the pandemic and released last year, Hersch, who is now 66, wistfully recalled watching Glen Campbell sing it on Sunday night TV in Cincinnati. The lyrics, to which he also referred, are of longing and loneliness. And, in Hersch’s interpretation, it was hard not to feel the emotions that, as he has written, he felt all those years ago.

“People knew how to write songs back then,” he told the crowd.

Throughout the set, Hersch repeatedly reached back and rekindled long-dormant feelings, some of them more complicated in their associations than the pianist might have intended. “At The Close Of The Day,” an easygoing waltz adapted from his 2005 ensemble work Leaves Of Grass, paid straightforward tribute in tone and tenor to Walt Whitman, whose crystalline poetry had inspired the project. At the same time, the tune’s subtle sway in a meter favored by Bill Evans evoked echoes of that pianist — one to whom Hersch was, in his early days on the scene, frequently compared. The comparison, he has said, went from flattering to frustrating.

Unlike Evans, Hersch long ago deemphasized the jazz-piano paradigm in which the left hand comps while the right hand does the improvisatory heavy lifting. On an original like “Dream Of Monk,” the play of his hands — at once interdependent and remarkably autonomous across the full range of the keyboard — built on the contrapuntal complexities embodied in the work of ambidextrous antecedents stretching from French modernists like Bernard Peiffer back to J.S. Bach.

But it would be a mistake to think that Hersch was looking only backward. His rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight,” the set’s penultimate offering, was distinctly in keeping with today’s culture of confession — a four-minute fantasia replete with revelations served up stream-of-consciousness style. Recalling the free form of Hersch’s 19-minute psychodrama “Through The Forest,” off 2017’s masterful solo collection Open Book, the tune, in its willingness to explore his vulnerable side, showed Hersch’s musical life to be, well, an open book. DB



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