By Frank Alkyer | Published January 2022
Pianist and composer Fred Hersch has delivered some of the most interesting music in jazz for the better part of four decades. The art he makes is not disposable in any sense of the word. It is indestructible and lasting. Take, for instance, Breath By Breath, his latest recording of jazz trio with string quartet, an amazingly satisfying listening experience. Many jazz-meets-classical projects have come out in recent months, and what places Hersch at the forefront of this particular trend (see DownBeat’s February 2022 issue) is his singular vision of presenting something of depth, all the while displaying a quintessential mastery of both the piano and composition. On Breath By Breath, Hersch creates a suite of music based on his long-time dedication to the practice of meditation. Many of the songs (like “Rising, Falling”) create a sense of breathing in and out as the strings, piano, bass and drums play in, through and around the pulse. But don’t think of this as some experiment in new-age faux mysticism. This is a high-level melding of jazz and classical elements, one that seems easy, natural and full of life. “Begin Again KSM3” kicks off the suite with Hersch playing a simple piano motif. It’s classic Hersch — catchy, classy and thoughtful. Enter bassist Drew Guess and drummer Jochen Rueckert, along with the Crosby Street String Quartet of violinists Joyce Hammann and Laura Seaton, violist Lois Martin and cellist Jody Redhage Ferber. The strings function almost like a fourth member of the trio — punctuating, pulsing, adding color — but it is not just for show. There are elements of absolute beauty on pieces like “Awakened Heart,” the title track “Breath By Breath” and the closer “Pastorale.” And there are moments of near giddiness on numbers like “Monkey Mind” and “Mara.” These compositions masterfully transform the two groups into one, and together they build a musical universe that’s different from anything else on the scene today.