Fred Hersch: What Is Jazz, Anyway

Fred Hersch Live at the Maverick September 8th, 2012

Defining jazz has always been a challenge. There are certain generally agreed upon elements that occur frequently in jazz: swing, syncopation, improvisation, blues-influence, and perhaps polyphony. Obviously, there are countless counter-examples of music that can only be considered jazz that do not share all of these elements.

Last night (September 8, 2012) I had the opportunity to see Fred Hersch at the Maverick in Woodstock, NY, a beautiful concert hall in the Catskill wilderness first opened in 1916. Though the Maverick Concerts are normally notable for their impressive classical music events, Fred Hersch played as a part of their new Jazz at the Maverick Series. At times his music walked the line between jazz and classical very delicately. His music rarely swung and often showed the influence of classical and impressionist composers more observably than that of the blues, but syncopation, improvisation, and polyphony ran rampant, creating highly expressive music that could never be mistaken for anything but jazz. Of the twelve numbers he played, only “Dream of Monk,” a composition of Hersch’s based on a coma dream he had featuring Thelonious Monk, and Monk’s own “Blue Monk” truly swung.

The first piece was Hersch’s original “Whirl,” which invoked images of ballet with its spinning, twirling, whirling arpeggios and flexible tempos. The second piece came from Hersch’s setting of Walk Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which he released in 2005. This was “At the Close of the Day,” and it is as beautifully lyrical as Whitman’s poem. His third number was Jacob do Bandolim’s “Doce de Coco,” which Hersch embellished with melodic block chord figures and an impressive left hand. The next two pieces were inspired by dreams Hersch had in his 2008 coma: “Pastorale,” based on a dream of Robert Schumann, and “Dream of Monk.” “Pastorale” is a delicate invention that recalls childhood images with the evident influence of Schumann’s own Scenes of Childhood, and “Dream of Monk” is firmly Monkian with its frequent, accented minor seconds, angular melody, and chromatic movement.

Up until “Dream of Monk” the evening may not sound like it’s been a jazz concert at all. However, on a piece like “Pastorale” Hersch’s improvisation is steeped in jazz even when it doesn’t swing. The melodies Hersch constructs embrace a tradition that combines blues with European classical elements, a combination that has always been instrumental to jazz music.

He followed this with a medley of Russ Freeman’s “The Wind” and Alec Wilder’s “Moon and Sand,” which showcased Hersch’s impeccable sense of melody as he seamlessly wove these two songs together. Appropriately, on a chilly September night in New York’s Hudson Valley, Hersch included Vernon Duke’s jazz standard “Autumn in New York.” Hersch showed his wide range here, adorning the head with rolling tremolos in his left hand, while he kept his improvisation quiet and sparse, sometimes playing two single lines without chordal accompaniment.

Because the Maverick is focusing on a French theme this season, Hersch included his own arrangements of three French impressionist compositions from his 1990 French Collection, two by Fauré, Pavane and Après un Rêve, and Le Tombeau de Couperi by Debussy. Both Pavane and Après un Rêve had no shortage of Hersch’s own personal style as he opened the pieces up for improvisation, combining these impressionist masterpieces with his own syncopation and his own jazz and blues influenced melodies. La Tombeau de Couperi was notable for being the most virtuosic piece Hersch played with its tremendously fast runs that utilize the full length of the piano.

As an encore, Hersch played his own “Valentine,” which is a simple, beautiful piece; its sparseness stood in great contrast to La Tombeau de Couperi. Finally, after wowing the audience with his delicate, gorgeous, expressive sound, Hersch ended the evening with a slow, dirty rendition of Monk’s “Blue Monk,” which served as a great reminder of where his improvisation came from. Even though most of the night sounded pristine and clean, the blues are an integral part of Hersch’s sense of melody, and this evening was definitely all about jazz.

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