Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 15, No.3, 2016

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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
  Contributing Editors
David Solway
Louis René Beres
Nancy Snipper
Farzana Hassan
Daniel Charchuk
Samuel Burd
Andrée Lafontaine
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
  Music Editors
Serge Gamache Emanuel Pordes
Diane Gordon
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Chantal Levesque Denis Beaumont
Marcel Dubois
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Jazz Contributors

Tommy Emmanuel
John Stetch
Susie Arioli
Coral Egan
Diana Krall
Stacey Kent
Carol Welsman
Aldo Romano
Denzal Sinclaire
Madeleine Peyroux
Bireli Lagrene
Sonido Isleño
Provost & Lachapelle
Kevin Breit
Sophie Milman
Annie Poulain
Badi Assad
Donato & Bouchard
Ingrid Jensen
John Roney
Russell Malone
David Binney
Kurt Rosenwinkel
Mimi Fox
Voo Doo Scat
Coral Egan
Martin Taylor
Jordan Officer
Melody Gardot
Jean Vanasse
Yves Léveillé
Sylvain Provost
Louciana Souza
Patricia Barber
Jill Barber
Corrine Bailey Rae
Chet Doxas
François Bourassa
Sylvain Luc
Neil Cowley
Marianne Trudel
Florence K
Terez Montcalm
Cyrus Chestnut
Tord Gustavsen
Sarah MK
Julie Lamontagne
Vincent Gagnon
Arioli & Officer
Jean Félix Mailloux
Becky Noble
Vijay Iyer
Lionel Loueke
Tia Fuller
Cécile McLorin Salvant
Emma Frank
Shai Maestro
Christine Jensen
Vincent Rehel
Kat Edmonson
Jaga Jazzist
Cline & Lage
2010 Montreal Guitar Show (Sylvan Luc)

Montreal Jazz Festival 2010







Piano Keyboard


by Robert J. Lewis

Featured artist: FRED HERSCH


By the 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.

He’s 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.

To the man and his music: What makes Fred Hersch great? What separates him from the merely exceptional and gifted?

We begin 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).

In the 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.

When 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.

Sometimes 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 blissful “Sarabande.”

Fred 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.

It will 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.

If you 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.

When 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.


2016 Montreal Jazz Festival (Club Soda)., July 7th, 6 pm



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