Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s “Art of Jazz” is 15 years old now, and this year’s debut for the series holds up well when compared with the stellar bookings they’ve had during the course of their existence. That’s because Fred Hersch is a truly amazing pianist, not just as a technician but as an artist capable of a beautiful brilliance in thought and execution.
He’s managed to build an admirable resume, working with Stan Getz and Joe Henderson among others, but the most impressive thing he has done involves working through health issues and returning to the stage. Over the past few years, Hersch’s medical trials have included AIDS-related dementia, a lengthy coma, renal failure and loss of speech. All of this was then topped off with an inability to control his hand muscles, which forced him to learn how to play the piano all over again.
You would never guess, based upon his performance Saturday, that there was ever a problem. All the hallmarks of his playing were present: a love of the “Great American Songbook,” a passion for Thelonious Monk’s music and a distinctive approach to the keyboard that is beguiling and thought-provoking at the same time.
While chestnuts like Irving Berlin’s “Change Partners” and the Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn classic “Some Other Time (I Could Resist You)” allowed the players plenty of meaty material to craft their own solos, it was in Hersch’s original tunes and a splendid cover medley of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” and Miles Davis’ “Nardis” where real magic occurred.
The Coleman-Davis combo found the group reaching deep into their bag of technical tricks, stretching their sonic portraiture beyond what some folks might consider terra incognita. Hersch reached past the keyboard to “damp” the piano strings while bassist John Hebert soloed, plucking notes from below the bass’ bridge, and drummer Eric McPherson used mallets to treat his drum kit almost like orchestral timpani. The result: The musicians ended up coercing the audience into a lengthy round of applause.
Much of Hersch’s nearly two-hour set was devoted to what he called “tribute” songs that he wrote in appreciation of specific artists. There was “Whirl,” which he dedicated to the ballerina Suzanne Ferrell; the splendidly nuanced “Sad Poet,” which echoed the Brazilian inflections of Antonio Carlos Jobim; and “Dream of Monk” for Thelonious Monk. “Skipping”, although not specifically introduced as a tribute, contained elements that could be associated with Monk, Duke Ellington and Jaki Byard (one of Hersch’s teachers).
Throughout the set, Hersch’s musical support system of Hebert and McPherson were given plenty of room to express their talents in both a group setting and in the solo spotlight when the rest of the trio created space for them.
One of the interesting things that happen at these Albright-Knox programs is a preconcert feature on an aspect of jazz. There have been interviews with musicians and explorations into the roots of some of the artists being presented, all for the benefit of folks who arrive early to the show.
Saturday’s concert appetizer was delivered by Bruce Eaton, the Art of Jazz series producer, and dealt with the late (and legendary) bassist Scott LaFaro, delving into the musician’s roots in Geneva and his history backing up artists as diverse as Bill Evans and Ornette Coleman.
Fred Hersch Trio
Part of the 2013-2014 Hunt Real Estate Art of Jazz Series Saturday evening in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Ave.