I recently came across “Giant Steps: Survival of a Great Jazz Pianist,” David Hajdu’s January 31, 2010 New York Times profile of Fred Hersch (which is to be republished in Alex Ross’s upcoming collection Best Music Writing 2011). I think I’m a little behind the times in just starting to listen to Fred Hersch now.
Hajdu describes Hersch as a leader in a new post-Marsalis kind of jazz, a tradition less concerned with the canon and instead more interested combining elements of jazz, classical, pop, and folk music to create something new and exciting (this is a very compelling idea that deserves more time than I am willing to give it in this blog entry).
To illustrate what kind of musician Fred Hersch is, I could showcase any number of his compositions, but instead, this performance of Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud” from October 10, 2010 (Monk’s birthday!) shows the versatility of his playing rather well. Midway through his improvisation, notice how Hersch combines swing eighth notes in his right hand and Baroque sixteenth notes in his left (around the 2:00 mark) and how he seems to move into a more classically influenced allusion to the original melody with a straight 6/8 feel (around the 3:45 minute mark). Then, listen as Hersch continues to alternate passages that seem to be influenced by Bach with stylistic elements more akin to Bud Powell and other be-bop pianists and even some traditional blues techniques. Hersch takes his improvisation much further away from tune than Monk normally would, but he does return at the end to restate the melody.