Pianists who play solo concerts, even ones who have made their names in jazz, realize that they’re best-served to have some classical acumen because of the inherent recital expectations of an unaccompanied atmosphere. In that regard, New York City-based Fred Hersch arrived at the Arts Garage in Delray Beach well-armed Friday night.
The Cincinnati native, who turns 59 on Tuesday, wrote symphonies before attending high school, and studied jazz and classical music at the New England Conservatory. A six-time Grammy nominee over a 30-year recording career as a leader, Hersch has mixed the two styles on releases like The French Collection (1989), Red Square Blue: Jazz Impressions of Russian Composers (1992), and his ode to poet Walt Whitman from 2005 called Leaves of Grass, which participating vocalist Kurt Elling likened to a “small jazz oratorio.”
There were several highlights in Hersch’s 45-minute opening set, while stragglers filled out the near-capacity crowd. His incredible independence was heightened via a camera mounted behind him, which projected the keyboard and both of his hands onto screens to either side of the piano. His solid sense of time, and gift for dynamics, needed no such visual aids.
“I’d like to play a couple of original dedications,” Hersch said early on. “The first is to Thelonious Monk, and it’s called ‘Dream of Monk.’” Hersch’s playing has always had a connection to the late, enigmatic pianist, and the spiked chords and bluesy nuance of this composition proved straight out of the Monk playbook. Hersch even bounced out of his seat to punctuate a late piano figure, countering his usual posture — head down, facing the keys — which resembled a virtuoso version of Schroeder from Peanuts.
The painterly pianist was clearly enjoying himself, which could only surprise those unfamiliar with what he’d overcome to do so. “Dream of Monk” will appear on his next release in late November, the DVD My Coma Dreams, which captures a live performance of the stage show centered on dreams Hersch had while in a medically-induced, two-month coma that saved his life in 2008.
An HIV/AIDS patient who’s since recovered remarkably well, Hersch had been rushed to the hospital by partner Scott Morgan in a post-pneumonia septic shock and near death. The DVD features an actor portraying both principals while Hersch plays within an 11-piece ensemble, plus creative visuals, lighting and animation to portray Hersch’s unique view of the vivid, colorful bridge between life and death.
His second dedication was the title track to his 2010 CD Whirl, written for ballet dancer and fellow Cincinnati native Suzanne Farrell. Hersch loves waltz-like time signatures nearly as much as he loves Monk, and the dynamic piece’s 6/8 cadence evoked a dance-like feel and shades of Debussy.
“Before I played jazz, I listened to the pop music of my generation,” Hersch said. “I’d listen to Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ album and try to figure out what those chords were. This is called ‘My Old Man.’”
Mitchell’s quirky ballad proved putty in Hersch’s gifted hands, which molded the piece with a more bluesy, improvisational feel before the pianist stated her lyrical vocal melody several minutes in. Hersch then closed the first set with a medley of Cole Porter tunes. The slow, dramatically gorgeous “So in Love” segued into a playful, Monk-ish “You’re the Top,” complete with a stride piano feel.
Set two was shorter, but no less remarkable.Hersch continued his inimitable ballad artistry on both standards (a beautiful take on Jerome Kern’s “The Song Is You”) and originals (his classically nuanced Leaves of Grass composition “At the Close of the Day”) in-between two of the evening’s memorable burners.
“I happen to share a birthday with Dizzy Gillespie,” Hersch announced midway through the set. “So I’d like to play a tune of his that’s one of my favorites. This is called ‘Con Alma.’” From the late trumpeter’s 1954 LP Afro, released the year before Hersch was born, the frenetic composition was given every signature element by the pianist — who played cascading series of notes, in shifting keys, while bouncing between its bebop and Latin rhythms.
Hersch always closes concerts with a Monk tune, and paid it further forward by covering “In Walked Bud,” Monk’s dedication to fellow piano icon Bud Powell. Again, the pianist saved the recognizable melody until near the end, alternately teasing and wowing the audience with a dizzying, right-brained/left-brained series of staggered chords, ragtime underpinnings, and simultaneous lines with each hand at opposite ends of the keyboard. Sergei Rachmaninov and Art Tatum would be proud.
Gunther Schuller already is. The 88-year-old composer, conductor and educator was president of New England Conservatory when Hersch studied there in the 1970s, and was the one who coined the term “Third Stream” to describe the synthesis of classical notation and jazz improvisation. As Hersch proved on this night, mission accomplished, and then some.