In recent years jazz has fragmented into many pseudo-movements. Some of the best players on the scene, however, have refused to wear stylistic blinkers and have created new approaches by openly embracing many elements from the present and the past. Among pianists, the most influential such musician is Fred Hersch, whose iconoclastic pursuit of a personal vision has showed many others how to achieve an emotionally authentic musical individuality.
Hersch is a well-trained pianist who started composing and improvising as a child. He studied at the New England Conservatory of Music under the great master of jazz piano eclecticism, Jaki Byard, before embarking on a career in jazz in New York. Working as a solo pianist and as an accompanist to Joe Henderson, Art Farmer, Stan Getz, and Lee Konitz, Hersch refined his skills and learned the jazz tradition directly from its greatest stars. At the same time he refined his compositional skills and in the 80s began to lead his own groups and to make recordings, which by now number almost fifty CDs. Many jazz pianists feel most comfortable in trio settings, but Hersch's discography covers a full range from solo recitals, duos, trios, and quintets to larger groups, and his repertoire is constantly shifting from older standards to contemporary works and his own ambitious compositions, including his acclaimed setting of Walt Whitman poems. Noteworthy are his many collaborations with singers, including Johnny Mathis, Janis Siegle, Audra McDonald, and Renee Fleming.
Hersch's music is almost always described as "beautiful," but that hardly does it justice. Although he has prodigious technique and a sophisticated knowledge of harmony and compositional practice, his playing and group concepts are oriented towards the expression of feelings, and everything else is subservient to that cause. This is well marked in his latest recording, a solo recital of songs by the Brazilian composer and performer Antonio Carlos Jobim. Many of them have been performed too many times, and one would not expect much new from such a recording, but Hersch does away with the lighthearted fluff that often characterizes bossa nova; he sings out the melodies with unsentimental beauty but at the same time reinvigorates the music with North American rhythmic muscle. He reimagines the tunes, exploiting their harmonic subtlety, and sculpts notes with a delicate pianistic touch in a manner instantly recognizable as his own. Fred Hersch returns for a rare solo performance at Kerrytown Concert House on May 6.
[Originally published in May, 2010.]
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