Saturday, January 30, 2010

Hersch in High Places

While still on the subject (sort of) of Fred Hersch, I'd like to draw attention to a major profile of Mr. Hersch in this weekend's New York Times Magazine. I first heard of this feature over the summer and am very excited to see it finally published.

In the article, critic David Hajdu (known in the jazz world for his wonderfully insightful biography of Billy Strayhorn) makes a particularly strong claim that the strongest artistic trends in jazz over the past ten years, manifested by the genre-smelting music of pianists like Brad Mehldau, Ethan Iverson, Jason Moran, and Vijay Iyer, have their source in the music of Fred Hersch. Considering Iverson (and his group the Bad Plus) and Jason Moran were the two jazz artists featured on NPR's 50 most important albums of the decade and that Vijay Iyer's "Historicity" was the runaway critic's choice for best jazz album of the year (making its way onto pop lists as well), Hadju's claim of Hersch's influence is no faint praise. As a (relatively) long-time listener of Hersch's music, I would agree with Hadju's statement. But aside from mentioning that Hersch was an important teacher of both Mehldau and Iverson, Hadju does not delve particularly deeply on what aspects of Hersch's music have paved the way for this new generation of jazz innovators.

The aspect of Hersch's music that Hadju talks about most prominently is his expressive lyricism. However, this beauty and lyricism is not exclusive to the new jazz of Iverson, Moran and co., and none of these piano players are lyrical in the traditional sense as Hersch is. These Gen X musicians are indebted to other aspects of Hersch's music that are not as instantly recognizable as his lyricism but still a vital part of his approach.

At the onset of his solo recording career, Hersch was primarily known as an interpreter of both standards and the works of other older jazz musicians. Certainly in order to get a recording contract of any sort with this kind of repertoire, Hersch had to bring something new to each of the compositions he played. Beginning with a harmonic palette superficially related to that of Bill Evans, Hersch would use a tune's form and chord changes as a superstructure over which he could organically develop a fully realized composition, not merely to string licks around like lights on a Christmas tree. In this way, Hersch would become a co-creator of the composition rather than just a performer rehashing something that had already been done. This organic unity of song and solo is a distinctive feature in Mehldau's, Iverson's, and Iyer's music, whether they are playing Blondie or the Beatles, Radiohead or MIA.

One of the most important aspects of Hersch's technique on the piano comes from this spontaneous-composition approach to playing tunes of any kind. Instead of concentrating all of his technical acumen in his right hand, Hersch's hands are nearly equally adept, allowing him to improvise multiple contrapuntal voices at once. This technique gives Hersch a greater range of expressive tools to use when developing his solos, such as the ability to thicken or thin the harmonic texture at different times in order to change the mood of the moment. All of the top next generation pianists have integrated a more active left hand into their playing, but each with a slightly different twist on it, whether Moran's percussive accents or Mehldau's slinky, Scarlatti-like lines.

In his appraisal of Jason Moran's album Black Stars as one of the fifty most important records of the last decade, Patrick Jarenwattananon writes that its importance comes from how Moran was able to deftly combine the over-taught, stringent techniques of post-bop with free improvisation. Though Jarenwattananon concedes that players have attempted this since the 1960s, he was right to emphasize the unique Franken-likeness of Moran's music. What goes unnoticed to many musicians and critics alike is how Hersch has subtly integrated lessons from free improvisation into his music. This is most conspicuously evidenced through Hersch's choice of sidemen, from drummer Tom Rainey, to bassist Drew Gress, to trumpeter Ralph Alessi, among many others (even Moran's own drummer Nasheet Waits). The variety of textures Hersch coaxes from his instrument in addition to his seemingly through-composed solos demands that his sidemen are equally adept at creating new context on the fly, a necessary ingredient of free improvisation. In recent years, Hersch's music has become even more open, particularly in his collaborative group "Focus" with reedman Michael Moore and drummer Gerry Hemmingway and his bass-less Pocket Orchestra, where Hersch is able to take the tune in any harmonic direction he pleases.

With so much of modern jazz indebted to Hersch's music, why has he gone so criminally unnoticed as a major jazz player? Part of it may have to do with the time in which Hersch came up as a bandleader. If one had to boil the history of jazz in the 1990s down to one story, it would be the conflict between the traditionalists and the avant-garde. With Wynton Marsalis still loudly pontificating the importance of (his) canon in jazz today, and others like John Zorn pontificating just as loudly against it, there was very little artistic room for someone who did fit easily into either community. Fred Hersch was one of these players. Though he played with progressive, downtown musicians like Dave Douglas, Erik Friedlander, and Bill Frisell, his music was certainly not "out" enough to catch a hold of the avant-garde's attention. And though his playing was unequivocally part of the jazz piano tradition, his interests were just varied enough that his style was not considered ideal by the neo-traditionalists. Luckily, the story of the last decade has been the breakdown of this dichotomy in the post-Ken Burns documentary jazz world, giving players the freedom to bring any sort of influence to the table, creating music that is not bound by ideology, just beautiful music. In a time when it was difficult to follow one's own personal artistic path in jazz, Fred Hersch did, paving the way for a new generation to do the same.

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