Monday, June 3, 2019

Big Band Arrangements of Fred Hersch’s Music

courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications

This Friday Palmetto Records will release its latest album of jazz pianist Fred Hersch. Those who follow this site regularly will probably find that first sentence a familiar one. However, this new release is a significant departure from the usual combo and solo recordings that Hersch followers tend to associate with him. Instead these recordings were made in Studio A of Westdeutscher Rundfunk (West German broadcasting, WDR) in Cologne, where Hersch performed with the seventeen members of the WDR Big Band. The title of the album is Begin Again; and, as is almost always the case, has created a Web page for placing pre-orders.

The album surveys nine of Hersch’s compositions in big band settings. The first eight tracks are arrangements by WDR Big Band conductor Vince Mendoza, and the final track is an arrangement by Hersch himself. The first track, which is the title track, is the only selection that has not been previously recorded.

However, even those who have internalized the performances of all of Hersch’s previous recordings are likely to be struck by the freshness and novelty of this one. The “Editorial Reviews” section on that Amazon Web page describes Mendoza’s arrangements as “Ellingtonian.” I would respectfully disagree in a manner that, I feel, calls attention to the significance of this release.

From the very opening of the very first track, I found myself thinking back on the meticulous approaches to innovation that I used to encounter in the work of Gil Evans. Evans had a scrupulous talent more making sure that every instrument made its own distinctive contribution to overall sonority, a talent that he may (or may not) have picked up from studying the scores of Maurice Ravel. Mendoza struck me as the first arranger to pick up Evans’ torch and run with it in new directions, leading to the “brilliantly coloristic” sonorities cited on the Amazon Web page.

Equally significant is how each of these arrangements provides just the right framework for not only Hersch’s tunes but also the capacity for improvising around those tunes. Hersch is the only soloist on only three of the tracks, “Out Someplace,” a poignant blues recollection of the death of Matthew Shepard, “Pastorale,” and “The Orb,” one of the movements from My Coma Years, Hersch’s bold attempt to capture his thoughts on his own two-month-long coma. (“The Orb” is the selection arranged by Hersch himself.) The remaining tracks all feature solos by WDR Big Band members; and Hersch joins in on only two of those tracks, the title track and “Havana.”

Just as my classical preferences tend to tilt in the direction of chamber music, in jazz I have a similar bias towards the intimacy of the small combo; but the arrangements on Begin Again are so absorbing that it now counts as a significant exception to my normative rule!

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