Concert Review: The Fred Hersch Trio at the McCarter Jazz Festival

When I heard the cut “Pastorale (for Robert Schumann)” on the album, Solo Fred Hersch, I could not believe my ears. The music was Robert Schumann, but sounded as if Schumann was doodling in a jazzy way with a smooth legato line, dynamic finesse, and impeccable phrasing. I immediately became a Fred Hersch fan.

The first time I heard him play live was in April when he gave a jazz workshop at Temple University. The workshop culminated in an informal concert with Hersch at the piano and students from the workshop playing guitar, bass, clarinet, drums, and saxophone. Hersch had clearly developed a good rapport with the students, and many of them played well, inspired by the opportunity.

I was not sure I would enjoy the Fred Hersch trio because jazz concerts are frequently loud and over-amplified, but the performance at the First Annual Jazz in June Festival at the McCarter Theatre was not too loud, in fact, they used very little amplification.

Drummer Eric McPherson listened intently to the impressionistic piano introduction in “Floating”, planning when and how he would come in. Then he picked up a brush and touched the cymbal softly on the penultimate note of a piano phrase. Building from there, he began light taps of the cymbal with his drumstick – adding subtle shading to the piece.

John Hébert’s double bass playing takes a different approach. In “Plainsong”, his improvisations seemed to go against the melody while building countervailing responses to the piano’s lead. His playing is exciting, and sounds frenetic in live performance compared to the trio’s recordings.

On the liner notes of the album {open book}, Hersch says, “Today, I find that the best state of mind to be in when I sit down at the piano is ‘let’s see what happens’.” Sounds simple, but of course, it is not. Hersch has an uncanny ability to break down the structure of a melody, to see its harmony, and envision myriad possibilities for improvisation. He hints at a Chopin Mazurka in the middle of “Havana” and inserts chords in the style of Francis Poulenc in Thelonius Monk’s “We see”— playing with the meter but never losing the rhythmic structure.

His voice leading in “For no one” from the Beatles’ Revolver was intricately contrapuntal as he wound his way in and out of the melody. The way Hersch held ringing sustained notes for Billy Joel’s “And so it goes” while playing clean legato phrases around the held notes was the mark of a master pianist.

Hersch is more than a jazz pianist. To me, he is a classical pianist who can apply all of the subtle shadings of classical technique to jazz.Fred Hirsch Trio. Phot by John AbbottFred Hersch. Photo by John Abbott

[June 15, 2018 at 8:00 p.m. at the Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, New Jersey. For more information see mccarter.org/jazzinjune

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