Fred Hersch – Open Book
(Palmetto. PM2186. CD review by Jon Turney)
Fred Hersch is a modern piano master. Reviews nowadays typically note his late career flowering after a near fatal episode of AIDS-related illness a decade ago. Personally I think he’s been at the top of his game a lot longer (try Sarabande, with Charlie Haden and Joey Baron from ’87, for instance). But there’s no question he is putting out remarkable recordings now.
This latest is a solo performance, his 11th, and centres on a 20-minute spontaneous invention, Through the Forest, that began a concert in South Korea. It’s a departure from his normal song-based set, an open-ended rumination that keeps the attention with hardly any straightforward harmonic or rhythmic signposts. Plenty of pianists can play for 20 minutes unaccompanied, but few can sustain this continuity of mood or level of invention – even the sainted Jarrett usually needs to milk a riff or throw in a crowd-pleasing cadence. Hersch’s excursion feels at times like a glimpse into a private world, but one it is a pleasure to visit.
On anyone else’s release that would be the highlight, but the rest of the set – recorded on a return visit to the same venue – is full of them. The other pieces are more typical Hersch choices, but exhibit the same quality of thinking aloud. That’s heightened by his strongly contrapuntal left hand, which frequently makes it sound as if there are two complementary improvisations going on at once.
There’s the habitual nod to Monk, Eronel, and a Jobim tune, Picture in Black and White, treated as a chamber piece. Benny Golson’s Whisper Not is quietly stunning – the pianist eschews sustain entirely here and every cleanly separated note gleams. The whole set is framed by two pieces deeply dyed with emotion. The opener, Orb from Hersch’s suite Coma Dreams, is an achingly tender tribute to his partner. And the closer, a stately, hymnal take on Billy Joel’s And So It Goes that hews close to the theme, is one of the most gorgeous pieces of piano playing you’re ever likely to hear.
It’s a marvellous set, and heightens anticipation for his London trio date at Kings Place for the EFG festival, which is not yet (quite) sold out. Can’t wait.