Monday, February 28, 2011

Ten Fingers, Two Hands, One Fertile Mind

Alone at The Vanguard - Fred Hersch (Palmetto Records) - It's been 3 years since pianist/composer Hersch became so ill that he went into a coma for 2 months;  when he emerged, he was unable to eat or drink, had to endure a tracheotomy and dialysis plus he lost the ability to play piano.  Hersch has since recovered most, if not all, of his faculties and, as one can hear from this recording from December of 2010, his playing is fine. (In May of this year, Hersch's "My Coma Dreams", a multi-media depiction of his experiences, will have its premiere at Montclair State University.)
This program, actually the last set on the last night of a 6-night stay at the Village Vanguard, is, in a word, wonderful. Combining 4 original pieces with one each by Eubie Blake, Thelonious Monk, and Sonny Rollins plus a work from Brazilian composer Jacob de Bandolim as well as the standard "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning", this is music to savor either alone or with a close friend.  It's not so much that this is "romantic" music (though it has its moments), it's contemplative, probing, and, in the end, filled with the joy of a musician inflight full  - the music would be lost on a group of people unless they were sitting in a club or concert space.  Every piece is required listening, from the bluesy riffs of "Down Home" (dedicated to guitarist Bill Frisell - during the solo, listen for the quote from "If I Only Had a Brain" ) to the melodic and harmonic elegance of "Pastorale" (dedicated to Robert Schumann.) Blakes' "Memories of You" has a contemplative, melancholy, feel while Rollins' "Doxy" starts quietly, formal in the stately presentation of the melody line before the pianist takes the piece through shifts of mood and dynamic variations. 
Fred Hersch has long been one of the musicians I turn to when in need of rejuvenation. Not because the music is revolutionary or "swings like mad" or, on the other hand, mindless and loud. There is a clarity of vision in his music, he's not afraid to take other composer's work and find his own interpretation while his original compositions are thoughtful and well-organized, always leaving room for exploration. If you have never explored his recording "Leaves of Grass" (Palmetto, 2005), which utilizes Walt Whitman landmark work from the 19th Century, find it and dig deeply into its complex yet approachable world.  Meanwhile, "Alone at the Vanguard", as I wrote above, is wonderful listening.  For more information, go to  To find out more about "My Coma Dreams", go to

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