Fred Hersch ‘Open Book’ CD/DIG (Palmetto) 5/5

In the sometimes seemingly overcrowded world of the contemporary jazz pianist, it must be difficult to make a lasting impression. I often think of Hersch as something of an unsung piano hero. He’s been ploughing a jazz furrow for many years. It’s only comparatively recently, however, that he seems to have carved his name in the jazz cannon with a number of accomplished releases. His favoured musical context is that of the conventional jazz trio or as a solo pianist, an area which seems to me particularly difficult to excel in. We can all think of any number of solo piano albums which fail to hold our attention throughout.

I think of Hersch as a cerebral player. But more often now we hear a more vulnerable Hersch, perhaps more concerned with the emotional side of music rather than being quite so introspective.

‘Open Book’ is the pianists eleventh solo album. Solo piano is an intimate task. The performer is exposed in a way that would not be the case in a trio context.

The opening piece ‘The Orb’ has an almost bitter-sweet element to it, especially when one learns that it comes from Hersch’s autobiographical music/theatre piece ‘My Coma Dreams’. This is tender and heart-felt music. The music here is reminiscent of fellow pianist John Taylor.

The pace picks up with Benny Golson’s tune ‘Whisper Not’ where the pianist has great fun deconstructing and reassembling the familiar theme. Indeed, he manages to avoid playing the tune until we reach the final minute of the piece. Great fun. The Jobim tune ‘Zingaro’ is next, starting with an introspective and considered introduction before the tune’s familiar theme hovers into view, but once again subtly re-caste by the pianist. Very delicate.

The albums’ tour-de-force is a nineteen minute-plus Hersch composition ‘Through the Forest’. This is at once intensely melodic and at times dramatic music. I questioned if such a piece would hold my attention but it certainly did. ‘Plainsong’ is next and is another pure delight.

Thelonious Monk’s ‘Eronel’ follows and after the near classical-sound of the previous piece, is much more light-hearted in its approach. The pianist soon dispenses with the tune and is off again on a wonderous flight of fancy. The album concludes somewhat unexpectedly with a simple yet majestic reading of Billy Joel’s ‘And So It Goes’. This, almost hymn-like in its approach. A performance which cleansed the pallet following the multifarious delights exhibited throughout the rest of the recording.

If you are a fan of contemporary jazz piano of the highest order you will need this in your collection.

Alan Musson