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Fred Hersch: Open Book (Palmetto)

Review of solo album from veteran pianist

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Cover of Fred Hersch album Open Book
Cover of Fred Hersch album Open Book

Released in conjunction with Fred Hersch’s frank memoir, Good Things Happen Slowly (Crown Archetype), this solo-piano tour de force carries a similar sense of catharsis. A whole spectrum of feelings are being worked out, and the most difficult take up the nearly 20-minute length of “Through the Forest,” which was spontaneously improvised during a December 2016 concert in South Korea. The forest evoked here is a dark place indeed, buffeted by chilly winds that continually blow leaves into the bedraggled traveler’s face. Cecil Taylor may be living there, too, if Hersch’s brittle note clusters are anything to go by. Remarkably, every second of this long piece feels necessary.

More positive emotions distinguish the album’s other six tracks. The lush voicings on Hersch’s own “The Orb” are unapologetically romantic, while Benny Golson’s “Whisper Not” becomes a whimsical exercise in counterpoint, as the pianist takes a single phrase—two eighth notes followed by a thorny chord—and runs it down the full length of the keyboard. Jobim’s “Zingaro” provides a platform for philosophical rumination as well as a brief waltz; Monk’s “Eronel” gives Hersch a chance to show off his wit with fractured stride moves; and the original “Plainsong” opts for simple beauty. The final track, Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes,” has sadness in its core, despite being in a bright major key. Hersch milks the melody’s hymn-like nobility for all it’s worth; by the end, you may be in need of a handkerchief. On Open Book, an artist lays his heart out for us, and that’s something to treasure.

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