Concert Review: Fred Hersch launches a jazz series at St. Stephens Episcopal Church

Fred Hersch inaugurated a four-concert series called The Future of Jazz Piano to benefit art programming and artists at St. Stephens Church in Philadelphia. The twelve-time Grammy Award nominee played in the 1823 Gothic Revival Church on Friday, bringing a crowd into the sanctuary, which has begun holding regular services again.

As St. Stephen’s Vicar Peter Kountz announced that the church had just received additional funding from the Neubauer Family Foundation for the church’s 2018-2019 solo jazz piano series, Fred Hersch stood in the wings smiling encouragement for his friend of twenty years. Hersch has selected three jazz pianists of the next generation to give solo concerts at the church, bringing music lovers into the sanctuary and perhaps starting a revival of the church, too.

Mr. Hersch used a crutch to get to the piano, but when he sat down to play he had plenty of musical power and verve. He began Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Olha Maria/O Grande Amor” almost tentatively, testing the Steinway and adjusting and rethinking the piece as he reacted to the sound he was getting from the piano.

That is the genius of Fred Hersch: the ability to rethink all of his music as he plays, taking the sound of the notes he just played to move him to the successive idea, as if he were having a dialogue with the music. For Hersch, navigating around a less responsive area of a keyboard is a cerebral challenge – and he seems to do it instinctively, constantly discovering new ideas as he plays.

By any measure, Hersch is a consummate performer. For this night, with the exception of Thelonius Monk’s “Round Midnight/We See” medley and the counterpoint interpolations of Benny Golson’s “Whisper Not,” the music stayed in the calm range – ending with a sublime nocturne of Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes” for the encore.

Hersch was also signing his autobiography, Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz (Crown, 2017), which is a witty, uncensored and thoughtful chronicle of his life and music. His writing, with the help of his friend and collaborator David Hajdu, is immediately engaging and feels like a personal conversation, seemingly telling all the details of his life.

But it is Hersch’s music which bares his soul. Hearing him play in the quiet sanctuary of St. Stephen’s is a meditative experience — his own, expressing his thoughts as music.

Fred Hersch Photo by Mark Niskanen
Fred Hersch Photo by Mark Niskanen

[Fred Hersch on September 28, 2018 at 8:00 p.m. at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, 19 South Tenth Street, Philadelphia. Also in the series: Glenn Zaleski on November 8, 2018, Sullivan Fortner on February 7, 2019, and Micah Thomas on April 18, 2018. For tickets and information see www.ststephensphl.org]

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