Best Improvised Jazz Solo: "Whisper Not"
Best Jazz Instrumental Album: Open Book
Innovative Jazz Pianist On Vinyl LP!
Fred Hersch has long been acclaimed as an exploratory artist, an outspoken activist, an influential educator and a uniquely revelatory and lyrical pianist. As one of the most expressive voices in modern jazz, Hersch has never been shy about letting listeners glimpse his most intimate thoughts and emotions. In September 2017, however, Hersch's fans were treated to even deeper, more revealing insights into the story of the renowned pianist when he published his much-anticipated memoir, Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz. As a companion piece, Hersch decided to present an equally direct and vulnerable glimpse into his private musical thoughts with his 11th solo release, Open Book.
The pieces on Open Book offer some of the finest, most unguardedly emotional solo music that Hersch has created in a career unique for its profound poignancy and passion. Recorded in a South Korean concert hall on a superb Hamburg Steinway concert grand piano, the album captures the vital essence of the revelatory adventurousness and intense beauty that have made Hersch one of the most important solo artists in jazz. With more than 40 albums to his credit as a leader or co-leader, Hersch remarkably continues to discover new areas of inspiration and depths of feeling.
"For the last two and a half decades I've been pretty open about who I am, what I like and what I'm dealing with at times," Hersch says. "But I've always got to dig deeper, and I thought this might be a chance to make an album that's a window into the kinds of things that I play at home or don't play in public all that much."
The centerpiece of Open Book, and the spark that ignited the album, is the nearly 20-minute improvisation "Through the Forest." Unique in Hersch's extensive discography, the stream-of-consciousness gem is a miniature masterpiece of narrative development, a compelling journey through an abstract, glimmering landscape, revealing that in his early 60s Hersch continues to take creative risks and daunting inventive leaps. "Through the Forest" became the leaping-off point for an album intended to be singularly divulgent and reflective. A few months later, Hersch returned to the same hall and recorded the remainder of Open Book alone in the empty venue (with the exception of Benny Golsons classic "Whisper Not," taken from a concert during that return engagement).
The album opens with the stark musings of "The Orb," taken from Hersch's autobiographical music-theater piece My Coma Dreams. A love letter to Hersch's longtime partner, AIDS activist Scott Morgan, "The Orb" is the final dream depicted in the show, and in this solo rendition becomes a nakedly heartfelt outpouring of raw but tender emotion. The mood then takes a turn for the playful and swinging on "Whisper Not," a longtime staple of Hersch's repertoire that here becomes a vibrant, virtuoso marathon of thematic exploration. The piece also serves as an ideal mirror to the album's other composition from the pen of a jazz icon, Thelonious Monk's "Eronel." Hersch has long been recognized as one of the premier interpreters of the Monk songbook, but despite including one of the iconic composer's pieces in every one of his sets for most of his career, Hersch had never tackled this particular tune, co-written by pianist Sadik Hakim. Monk's original stride-inflected lines come in for a dizzying array of variations in Hersch's endlessly imaginative take.
The music of Brazil has also been a constant in Hersch's career, in particular the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim, the subject of one of the pianist's earlier solo efforts, 2009's Fred Hersch Plays Jobim. On this set Hersch plays Jobm's "Zingaro".
Open Book also features Billy Joel's moving "And So It Goes." In title alone it's an apt conclusion, suggesting an embrace of life as lived and hinting at its open-ended continuation. The full lyrics, which Hersch has performed in duo settings with singers including frequent collaborator Kate McGarry, remain unspoken here but obviously deeply felt in every note. "I connect with the sentiment of the words," Hersch says, "and it felt like a good benediction to the whole album."
"This is a recording that makes it seem as though Fred Hersch is the finest jazz pianist in the world. That's an impossible assertion, of course. There are a dozen, maybe more pianists who have achieved this level [of] artistry. But for now, with Open Book, he can wear that title." - Dan McClenaghan, All About Jazz
"Theres no such thing as a casual listen to a Fred Hersch recording. Diving into the American pianist/composer's work is no cold shower, though, but a trip into an enchanting world of teeming melodies, rich colours and criss-crossing stories. Like Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau, Hersch is a brilliant solo artist, and Open Book is a mix of originals and covers built around Through the Forest, a remarkable total-improv performance from a 2016 concert in Seoul. This 20-minute journey traverses dreamy Bill Evans-like musings, onrushing counterpoint, sleek swing and strutting dances and typically, no idea spins for long without turning on a chord or cadence that suggests an old tune but isnt. Whisper Not is a string of playful left-right chases; Antônio Carlos Jobims Zingaro is an outwardly orthodox ballad that invites attention to every gleaming detail and Thelonious Monks Eronel is coquettish rather than Monkishly truculent, but just as rhythmically audacious. It is a typical Hersch set: understated, cliche-free, and sublime in its craft and musicality." - John Fordham, The Guardian
"After you've listened to the whole record without distraction, go back and listen again. The pleasures deepen. And when you get to the centerpiece, that less obvious 'Through the Forest', it sounds different. It seems to contain traces of all these other ideas, abstracted and made more clear perhaps. It swells more, and it sweeps in a whole conception of what solo jazz piano can be." - Will Layman, Pop Matters
Fred Hersch, piano
1. The Orb
2. Through The Forest
1. Whisper Not
3. And So It Goes