Fred Hersch, live at Jordan Hall, February 17, 2010
Fred Hersch's struggles with his health were well chronicled in a January 28 New York Times Magazine profile: HIV-positive since the mid '80s, he last year spent two months in a coma. Everyone close to him thought it was the end.
But Hersch recovered and has been back in action, and he didn't look or, more important, sound ill at Jordan Hall Wednesday night, when he played a free solo-piano faculty recital. Always of slight build, he certainly didn't appear any heavier as he walked on stage toward the Steinway concert grand. But, all things considered, it was the same old Fred: bespectacled, goateed, in dark shirt and pants, serious but genial. What's more, he played a two-hour program (plus intermission) that was rich in all his hallmarks: masterful technique, probing musicianship, deep lyricism.
Mixing standards and originals, he reveled in the dynamic possibilities of the hall and his unamplified acoustic instrument. Fleet runs, rumbling tremolos in the bass register, tinkling high notes in the treble, exquisite contrapuntal voicings — Hersch was in his element. From the first tune, "A Lark" (dedicated to Kenny Wheeler), he matched sure rhythmic control with free-flowing melodies that seemed to melt the bar lines. "Whirl," his dedication to ballet dancer Suzanne Farrell, was at once long-lined graceful and a bit demonic in its surging 6/8 meter. He likes the subtler aspects of rhythm and swing — "groove" isn't exactly what he does. So his take on Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Insensatez" (from his solo Jobim CD on Sunnyside last year) was as much about harmonic exploration as about samba lilt.
It was a rewarding trade-off. There were times when he would break form, caught up in a phrase that he'd work and worry, taking a song on a detour that it seemed he hadn't anticipated any more than we had. He began Thelonious Monk's "Work" as pointillist abstraction — the tune didn't really appear until the last chorus. When he settled into a more familiar standard, like Eubie Blake's "Memories of You" (which he announced he'd learned from Jaki Byard when he first came to New England Conservatory in 1975), you could take in the simple pleasures of his profound knowledge of jazz fundamentals as he used a key change, a rhythmic adjustment, or a shift in register or dynamics to make every chorus different. Hersch returned to NEC to teach this past September. He said this concert was like "a welcome home." And it was.
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