Eric McPherson, Fred Hersch, and John Hébert (photograph by John Abbott, courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications)
This Friday Palmetto Records will release its latest album of jazz pianist Fred Hersch. This one is entitled Live in Europe, and it documents a trio performance that Hersch gave with John Hébert on bass and Eric McPherson on drums. As the title suggests, the tracks were recorded during a three-week European tour that took place this past November. More specifically, all recordings were made at a single date in Belgium at Flagey Studio 4, formerly the home for the National Institute for Radio Broadcasting in Brussels. As usual, Amazon.com is currently processing pre-orders.
I did not become aware of Hersch until relatively late in life. Unless I am mistaken, he first came to my attention when he took his theater piece My Coma Dreams on a tour that included a performance hosted by San Francisco Performances (SFP). It was hard not to be curious about a synthesis of jazz and theater inspired by a two-month coma that Hersch endured in 2008. The title refers to Hersch having documented eight dreams that he remembered when he emerged from the coma.
My schedule did not allow me to see this show; but, after writing an advance piece about it for SFP, I made a “note to self” not to miss his next visit to San Francisco. Since then I have been doing my best to keep up with both his visits and his recordings. Over the course of those experiences, I have found him to be one of the most innovative pianists I have encountered; and I make that claim in the context of having attended performances by both Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor!
Indeed, the first thing about Live in Europe that drew my attention was that the entire album of ten tracks was framed by Monk compositions. The recording opening with “We See” and concluded with “Blue Monk,” a solo performance Hersch gave as an encore for that Brussels date at which all of the album tracks were recorded. One of the things I like about Hersch is how he can develop inventions based on part-whole relationships. Where “Blue Monk” was concerned, that meant improvising around motivic fragments that only began to cohere into the recognizable Monk tune towards the end of the improvisation. (In the classical domain this is sometimes called a “reverse variations” treatment of a theme; and it is a technique in which Benjamin Britten was particularly skilled.)
In a similar way Hersch has a knack for taking an almost pointillist approach to his thematic material. Consequently, there are times when it seems as if he is deliberately avoiding any traditional sense of a melodic line with accompanying chords in favor of polyphony disclosed through hocket techniques. This approach is particularly evident in two of the more playful tracks on the album, “Scuttlers” and “Skipping.”
The album also offers three tracks each of which involves a new piece written to honor one of Hersch’s influences. Where “The Big Easy” is concerned, the influence is literary, rather than musical. Tom Piazza has written extensively about both music and New Orleans, with particular attention to the impact of Hurricane Katrina in the latter case. (He was credited for one of the episodes on HBO’s Treme series.) The other two “tribute” pieces are for musicians, “Newklypso” for Sonny Rollins and his innovative approach to Caribbean influences and “Bristol Fog” as a memorial for the British pianist John Taylor. In this latter piece I was struck by what I took to be shades of Maurice Ravel, which are never reinforced by any specific theme or motif but only subtly suggested.
In the two tracks before the encore, Hersch shifts from his own music to that of Wayne Shorter with performances of both “Miyako” and “Black Nile.” This first of these was dedicated to his daughter by his first marriage to Teruko Nakagami in 1961. The second came from Shorter’s 1964 Blue Note album, Night Dreamer. Both of these tracks reminded me that I need to pay more attention to Shorter’s activities prior to his joining Miles Davis’ so-called Second Great Quintet in 1964!