Review: Fred Hersch Solo Piano - Purcell Room

Fred Hersch. Photo Credit: DavidBartolomi
Fred Hersch
(Purcell Room, October 2nd, 2012. Review by Tom Gray)

There is a deep-felt admiration for Fred Hersch in the music world, and this was clear on Tuesday night from the appearance of several of the UK’s top jazz pianists among a devoted Purcell Room audience. The commissioning editors of The BBC’s Piano Season may have missed a trick in not featuring this best-in-class showcase of the art form of solo jazz piano.

Over two sets drawn largely from his own songbook and a few choice covers, Hersch showed why he is so cherished, with a truly personal approach to improvisation that goes far beyond making up a new melody line. His left hand was very much an equal partner in this process: whether offering mirror-image counterpoint, strolling in the bass register as a gorgeously voiced stride accompaniment, or combining with the right hand to make driving Brazilian rhythms, it was barely given a let-up all evening.

If Hersch’s fine sense of narrative and exquisite real-time editorial control left each piece sounding like a perfectly formed composition, there was also a palpable sense of risk-taking lurking beneath. On the opener, ‘Whirl’, it felt like Hersch was keeping plates spinning as he maintained the breezy momentum of the piece throughout a steady flow of new ideas. It was a remarkable physical feat from a man who had been in a two-month coma four years previously, the result of a severe bout of AIDS-related pneumonia.

Based on this experience, Hersch composed the suite ‘My Coma Dreams’, two pieces of which were featured in this concert. ‘Dream of Monk’, inspired by his unconscious visions of Thelonious Monk, was particularly appealing with its overt references to ‘Crepuscule with Nellie’. There were many other high points in the set, including ‘Mandevilla’, an elegant habanera with some beautiful twists of melody and harmony, and a ballad setting of Jerome Kern’s ‘The Song is You’ that really pricked the emotions.

With a fantastic-sounding unamplified piano and the Purcell Room’s generous acoustic, this was without doubt the best way to experience solo Fred Hersch. An evening to treasure.

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