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Fred Hersch: Songs Without Words

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The recording industry may be on the brink of imploding, and while I’m not planning on shedding many tears, I do hope Nonesuch under executive producer Robert Hurwitz manages to survive the post-Napster shakeout. Here is one label that still understands how to be both profitable and righteous, turning out savvy recordings and reinvesting unexpected windfalls from hits like the Buena Vista Social Club into worthy projects unlikely to excite a Wall Street analyst, except, perhaps, a very hip one. How else to explain mid-career, 10-CD retrospectives devoted to composers John Adams and Steve Reich or, on the jazz side, Songs Without Words, a new three-CD set chronicling the gifts of pianist Fred Hersch?

The emergence of Hersch, 45, as one of our most satisfying pianists has been an intriguing story, though the armchair psychology that would link artistic flowering to his personal odyssey as an openly gay and HIV-positive musician is a chimera. If Hersch’s art deepened in the mid-’90s, it mostly reflected the natural maturation of a creative and hard-working musician with 20 years in the trenches. The process of distilling the mainstream vocabulary into a personal voice takes years (if it happens at all).

Hersch’s previous Nonesuch releases have been mostly solo programs of Monk, Strayhorn and Rodgers & Hammerstein, plus a live recital and a duet album of standards with Bill Frisell. Songs Without Words is an ambitious triptych that profiles Hersch as solo pianist, composer and interpreter. The music is impeccably organized and paced-no surprise given Hersch’s penchant for songbook albums that walk the plank of overproduction without slipping into the abyss. Volume one is given to Hersch’s dapper compositions. Volume two covers jazz tunes by Monk, Ellington, Gillespie, Mingus, Benny Golson, Wayne Shorter, Russ Freeman and Kenny Wheeler. Volume three is devoted to Cole Porter, the most structurally intriguing of the great American popular songwriters. Though Hersch mostly goes it alone, the set is spiced by duets with percussionist Jamey Haddad, trumpeter Ralph Alessi and drummer Tom Rainey; a trio with bassist Drew Gress and Rainey; and a quintet with Alessi, saxophonist Rich Perry, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Nasheet Waits.

The 10 tracks on each CD are unified not just by concept but also by clever internal rhymes, allusions and interpretive pivots. The dots have long been connected between Monk and Ellington, for example, but the refined pointillism of Hersch’s improvisation on Monk’s “Work” followed by a similar approach to “Caravan” delivers a truism with revelatory impact. A canny medley of Mingus’ “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” and “Jump Monk” adds another link to the chain.

Hersch is a profound formalist: fastidiously committed to the structural integrity of his material but endlessly inventive in the way he liberates emotion through sophisticated harmony, rhythmic flexibility, melodic ingenuity, dynamics, meter changes, pedal points, vamps, suspensions, ornamental nuance and nutty whims that conjure up the spirit of Earl Hines.

Hersch’s attention to form explains a lot, including the archetypal names-“Aria,” “Ballad,” “Tango”-he’s given to movements of his six-part suite collectively titled Songs Without Words. It also explains why one of the tightest structures, Golson’s “Whisper Not,” which traps most players in half-diminished hell, promotes one of Hersch’s most abandoned solos. He refracts a swinging triplet figure throughout, erupting in joyous double-time and Bach-like dialogue between hands. Occasionally his formalism reverts to fussiness, but generally he strikes a deft balance of architectural discipline and improvisatory freedom, particularly in the Porter material.

Hersch is never arbitrary yet he is rarely predictable either. Porter’s “Get Out of Town” unfolds in chapters. Hersch opens with the verse, swinging insouciantly. A wink of Bachian counterpoint starts the improvising and the dialogue between left and right hands deepens. The second chorus begins with high plinks then dances in bebop rhythm. A stair-step sequence takes Hersch into the basement of the piano where he rumbles softly for a chorus. Chords, greater density and volume span the fourth chorus before the music cycles back to Porter. Hersch has had to stomach a lot of knee-jerk comparisons with Bill Evans, but if their means are different, one valid connection is the forward momentum and continuous development in their improvisations. Hersch’s classical training is everywhere, too-in his pianistic rather than percussive touch, his effortless technique, his active left hand, the variety of strategies he uses to spread the rhythm between hands, and the Brahmsian countermelodies and interlocking motives that blush his originals.

Complaints? A couple. The precious melodies and intensely sunlit or brooding harmony of Hersch’s compositions show better when not lined up in a row. And a few more ensembles would have better balanced the set. The two quintet tracks, particularly the collective improvising on Shorter’s “Fall,” pulsate with possibilities. If I’m planning a follow-up to Songs Without Words, I’m starting here.