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Fred Hersch: Breath by Breath (Palmetto)

A review of the pianist's album featuring Drew Gress, Jochen Rueckert, and the Crosby Street String Quartet

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Fred Hersch: Breath by Breath
The cover of Breath by Breath by Fred Hersch

Sati, Hersch writes in his liner notes, is a word in the Pali language meaning “mindfulness” or “awareness.” The pianist’s meditations helped him through “this year and a half of global impermanence.” I, for one, remain sadly frightened at the thought of impermanence—personal, emotional, in terms of the human race—but Hersch, much to his credit, planted seeds of serenity for a crop of elegant focus, in a suite charted by meditation phases.

He’s joined by bassist Drew Gress, drummer Jochen Rueckert, percussionist Rogerio Boccato on one late cut, and the Crosby Street String Quartet—violinists Joyce Hammann and Laura Seaton, violist Lois Martin, and cellist Jody Redhage Ferber. “Begin Again,” an admonition to stick with the meditation breath, finds the strings dicing lightly across Hersch’s forward motion; distractions, perhaps, to be weathered and spurned for return to the breath. The title cut features an exposition from Gress: the simple sort of statement you might find from a stranger overheard on a phone, until you synch to the stranger’s wisdom.

Elsewhere, the strings find themselves suspended in piano amber, solid statements Hersch can touch to deepen at will. They echo themselves, figures growing richer in reiteration. “Monkey Mind,” taking on the “discursive mental chatter” thrown off in deep meditation, features such discursion:  pizzicato from the quartet, dry fills from Rueckert, Hersch dropping in notes like a splatter not quite graduating to storm.

“Rising, Falling” sets the bassline to the title action, the quartet sprouting held-note figures behind every low note. Hersch delivers low-key mastery both through individual forms and his overall plan. I wish I shared his serenity; he acknowledges how “most things in the world are out of my control,” even as he tills his own plot, confident in harvest.

Learn more about Breath by Breath on AmazonApple Music

Before & After With Fred Hersch