Fred Hersch {Open Book} – Palmetto Records

by | Aug 20, 2017 | Jazz CD Reviews

Fred Hersch {Open Book} – Palmetto Records PM 2186 56:43****:

Beyond Category

( Fred Hersch – piano)

In a piece Margo Jefferson wrote for the New York Times on October 15,1993 discussing Duke Ellington, she used the following sentence: ”The highest praise Duke Ellington bestowed on people or music he loved ( not least his own) was the phrase beyond category.” If The Duke were still alive, conferring  this accolade on Fred Hersch would be automatic.

Fred Hersch’s latest release of solo piano music is entitled Open Book. It is a judicious amalgam of his own compositions, along with covers of some jazz and popular standards. In deciding how any composition is to be played, Hersch may be compared to a crafty baseball pitcher who paints the corners of the plate, never anything over the middle. His attack is generally filled with sharp possibilities, supported by his daunting command as an improvisor.

The session opens with one of Hersch’s originals called “The Orb”. It is a ruminative piece filled with a mixture of calmness and fastidious harmony. Benny Golson’s famous composition “Whisper Not” has a Mozartian feel with sharply struct notes, a bold and complex attack that provides an inner tension, that is eventually released though the reassertion of the theme as the number is played out.

“Zingaro”—meaning gypsy—was written by Antonio Carlos Jobim as an instrumental number but later on lyrics by Chico Buarque were added, and a new iteration of the piece emerged entitled  Retrato Em Branco E Preto meaning Portrait In White and Black  although the number is generally known as Portrait In Black and White for lyric alliteration purposes. Despite this convoluted story, Hersch’s interpretation is far more straight forward. Taken with a soft and sparse approach, Hersch is still able to tell a story that is filled with colours and a precise musical vocabulary that does not stray far from the melody.

The centrepiece of this release is an extended (almost 20 minutes) improvisational  composition “Through The Forest” which  Hersch describes in the album’s liner notes as having  “…no safety net or preconceived ideas”. As for the track, there is so much going on musically an accurate description is a challenge. While there is a certain harmonic structure, there is no melody or theme. Hersch nevertheless pushes forward fearlessly with adventurous instincts, until he has exhausted the ideas he was exploring.

Of the remaining cuts, perhaps a comment or two about Thelonious Monk’s “Eronel”.  As 2017 is the Centenary of Monk’s birth,  surprisingly Hersch chose one of his lesser known numbers, and one in which Monk’s ownership may be more related to attribution than actual composition. According to Robin D.G. Kelley, the author of Thelonious Monk-The Life And  Times Of An American Original, in a writing that was editorially removed from the book, Sadik Hakim along with some assistance from Idrees Sulieman composed the number for a young lady named Lenore Gordon, hence “Eronel”. When Hakim and Sulieman brought to tune to Monk to include in his repetoire, Monk changed one note in the bridge and hence received a compositional credit. Regardless of the compositional antecedents, Hersch’s interpretation is Monkian with the quirks and chord changes that are associated with Monk’s music. There is, however, a brighter tempo and sharper note striking than in Monk’s solo interpretation of the number done in 1954 for Vogue Records and the album Thelonious Monk Piano Solo.

All in all a tour de force of solo piano playing.

The Orb
Whisper Not
Through The Forest
And So It Goes

—Pierre Giroux

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