time Fred Hersch’s fabulous fingers are retired, he should
be on most people’s top ten jazz pianists ever list, sharing
the ‘for the greatest only’ stage with the likes of
Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock among
others. I simply can’t get enough of Fred Hersch –
especially in the solo piano format.
been touring with the ivories for over 30 years, which means it
has been a long time coming for Montrealers, who, for the 2016
edition of Montreal’s
annual International Jazz Festival, will finally
get an opportunity to catch one of the genre’s game changers
on July 2nd, at Salle Gesu, where if pianos could talk they wouldn’t
stop talking about the venue’s incomparable acoustics. The
seating is limited to 427, so don’t wicket it on the ticket.
man and his music: What makes Fred Hersch great? What separates
him from the merely exceptional and gifted?
with his understanding -- as having lived it in live performance
-- of just how difficult and demanding it is to be a jazz musician,
to spontaneously generate improvisations that are so right, they
merit, at a very minimum, to be regarded as and ranked with composition.
Of the many times a song gets practiced and played, only a select
few will be considered fit for recording, where, it is to be noted
with an asterisk, all recorded improvisation, consequent to repeated
listening, turns into composition (the notes are always the same).
spirit of humility and confession, Hersch, in interview, using
a baseball analogy, avers that if he’s hitting 300 he’s
playing very well. That means he will be disappointed in his invention,
his improvisation 70% of the time. Happy audiences will vigorously
dispute the percentage, but the caveat auditorus alert
– especially in jazz -- is not without warrant.
what is there is exactly what is wanted and granted, when idea
and inspiration, mind and finger coordination constitute a single
gesture that reveal, however ephemerally, something of the perfection
of the universe, Fred Hersch’s music is as good as it gets.
what he wants isn’t quite right. If total separation of
hands is required for a difficult counterpoint, he will work on
it until the syncopation is as natural as breathing. If somewhere
in the middle of a luminous run a segment isn’t up to scratch,
through repeated trial and error he’ll stay with it until
he gets it right, perhaps right for all time, or at a minimum
right enough for the recording studio. If not the exact notes,
the feel and structure of a particular sequence might be repeated
in live performance, such as in the extended denouement in the
Hersch, unlike most jazz pianists, has no qualms about incorporating,
or allowing composition to structure or indelibly shape or direct
the ideas that propel his improvisations. That he accords exceptional
status to composition is surely one of his distinguishing features.
This is not to be confused with fillers and defaults when the
inspiration runs dry. Making the highest demands of himself, Hersch
will settle for nothing less than those numinous intervals, those
Moments Musicaux (from where they come no one knows,
but hard work underlies it), that are immediately identified as
so substantive that they must be included from one performance
to the next. There’s a sequence in his solo version of Cole
Porter’s “I’m the Tops” that features
a turn of phrase, a locution that is not only melodically but
rhythmically so unorthodox and yet spellbinding, something out
of the stratosphere, so inventive and astonishing that our pleasure
would be diminished if we didn’t hear it, or at least an
approximate variation of it, in subsequent live performances.
come as no surprise that a jazz pianist for whom spontaneous invention
and composition are on equal footing will be attracted to the
classical mode of invention, where instead of improvising against
a given theme or motif that is either played or is playing in
his head, he will spontaneously evolve an idea or melody, improvising
its structure and development in live time, not unlike Mozart
creating entire sonatas or concertos in his head. It could very
well be that when Hersch is deep in the privileged realm of creation,
it’s neither jazz nor classical but simply music that is
issuing from him, because it has nowhere else to go. In the long
list of praiseworthy adjectives commonly used to describe or qualify
jazz, sublime would not be one of them – until Fred Hersch.
know anything about his life, he’s no stranger to adversity,
and his exceptional music is not only the concrete counterpoint
to, but the resolution, however temporary, of life’s utter
randomness and contingency. The discography, from the concert
hall and recording studio, wonderfully capture and preserve alternative
worlds that are sure to be visited time and again long after Hersh
has bid adieu to this world.
he’s in the zone, especially in Songs without Words
(“I Concentrate on You”) his hybrid music patents
a unique journey to a destination where pathway and arrival are
one and the same.
Montreal Jazz Festival
(Club Soda)., July 7th, 6 pm