Fred Hersch’s frail physical appearance (he has lived with HIV for more than 25 years) creates expectations of similarly delicate music. Indeed, delicacy is one of the pianist’s calling cards, especially in his original compositions. But, as Hersch demonstrated with his trio at Blues Alley on Thursday night, it’s not the only card in his deck.
His opening “Whirl,” dedicated to ballerina Suzanne Farrell, seemed ripe for small, fragile phrases and rhythms that evoked ballet movement. It started that way, with a quiet piano intro, but the arrival of bassist Drew Gress and drummer Eric McPherson injected energy and swing into the waltz. By the time of Hersch’s solo, he wasn’t taking delicate steps, but large, propulsive strides.
Soon, Hersch was giving jazz’s great iconoclasts a run for their money. His take on Ornette Coleman’s clattering “Forerunner” had less urgency than Coleman’s but outdid it in playfulness and edgy harmony. Hersch likewise took on Thelonious Monk. In fact, his bluesy “Dream of Monk” was inspired by a dream he had — while in a medically induced coma in 2008 — of competing with the legend. It sounded so much like Monk with its lopsided rhythms and harmonic clusters that it might easily be mistaken for a dutiful cover, but for a speed and agility on the keys that could only be Hersch’s.
Still, delicacy was never quite removed from his palette, lurking like brown in a Rembrandt painting. Gress did the heavy lifting in Hersch’s tribute to Antonio Carlos Jobim, “Sad Poet,” with a long solo that carried a poet’s cadences and pacing, but it was the pianist who brought the sadness with a lyrical lament of his own. Gentler still was the trio’s take on Wayne Shorter’s “Fall,” a tune that Hersch aptly described as “enigmatic.” His was a different sort of enigma, less inquisitive than shrouded; the whole band played as if on tiptoe, with such quietude that it became unnerving. That’s when the trio surprised yet again. Hersch built up magnitude until he seemed all but lost in a sea of his thickening chords, while McPherson gained rhythmic momentum and volume until he burst into thunderous triplets on the snare. It was the declaration of an artist refusing to let his own frailties define his art.
West is a freelance writer.